Wednesday, March 17, 2010

2010 Antarctica Marathon


Finished 1st overall in 3:50:02 and was closely followed by my better half, Kathy, who finished 1st woman and 2nd overall in 3:58:59; Kathy became the only woman to go under 4 hours in the 11 editions of the Antarctica Marathon.  The course consisted of a series of 4 x 1/4 marathon out-and-backs.  It was a 100% non-paved, very hilly and extremely muddy route that really benefited those with trail running experience (i.e. me and Kathy). Temperatures never got out of the mid 30's, however there was a constant wind that grew to over 30 knots that created a chilly out bound head wind but wonderful in bound tailwind.  Not the toughest race I've ever run, nor my best personal performance, but I'm elated to have had the opportunity to run in such a forbidding and very difficult place to get to! 

Pre-Race: Racing under a microscope and a tough journey…

This was perhaps the most stressful race I’ve ever run, bar none.  There are races that stress you out because you or others have high expectations for performance.  There are races that stress you out because of the perceived or known difficulty of the course and conditions.  While I did have some high expectations for myself for this event (my goal was always to win) and I prepared myself to expect the unexpected when it comes to running a race in a very foreign, faraway and unpredictable place as Antarctica; I was not overly stressed in these matters.  No, I was stressed out over the over abundant rules and regulations we had to follow to complete this race in order to avoid disqualification.

Because of past “probable” transgressions of the Antarctic Treaty, U.S. EPA and other rules and regulations derived between several countries, this year’s Antarctica Marathon was under very tight scrutiny.  In short,according to the race director, Thom Gilligan, our conduct could determine not only the future of The Last Marathon but possibly the fate of all future recreational and tourist activities in Antarctica!

In summary, at previous Antarctica Marathon events trash was left and the Antarctica Treaty specified 100 person maximum landing party was violated when the marathon was contested on the same course with dual start and finish lines with parties of a 100 runners landing at two different locations (read: 200 runners on the course).  There were other issues as well, but basically it boils down to some serious politics and some saber rattling by several countries who had research stations on King George Island.  Long story short, the 2010 Antarctica Marathon runners were being held under a very obvious double-standard of rules and regulations in order allow this event to be held at all!  All things considered, Thom Gilligan (the race director) and all those involved in getting this race to even go this year, deserve a whole lot of credit for pulling it off.  All the same, in order for this event to be a success, runners had to endure some severe rules and limitations.

The biggest rules we had to adhere to or else face immediate disqualification were:

1.       Absolutely no food allowed on the island with the exception of “Power Bars and Gels”.  However, wrappers were forbidden which means you could have a Power Bar or Gel but the bar had to be removed from the wrapper and the gel put into a flask or other container.  This also meant that we could only have water or pre-mixed energy drinks on the island, so no bringing the race drink mixes in powder/liquid form to mix while on the island.  These fluid containers had to be clearly marked and left and specific locations along the course

2.       No urination or excreting on the course except in approved containers.  No big deal here really, but if had to go you went into one of several tents along the course and did your business into 5 gallon water cooler!

3.       No stepping on the moss.  King George Island is a very stark and forbidding place to be, let alone run through.  The only thing that grows here is moss, but as the island is protected under the Antarctic Treaty we had to limit our impact on the island which includes not harming the very delicate moss.  To assist runners in avoiding stepping on moss, the entire route was marked with orange surveyor flags, on either side of the road, and the runner had to keep between the markers to be “ok.”

At any rate, it was a very stressful situation we all found ourselves in, and nobody wanted to risk disqualification after traveling thousands of miles and spending thousands of dollars to get here!  So now it is better understood why I was more stressed about this race than any other.  I truly had to watch my conduct, more than ever before, all while trying to compete and run my own race.  Just another challenge!
Added to the stress of running under a microscope was the stress brought on by the arduous journey just to get to King George Island and the start at Bellingshausen StationBuenos Aires, Argentina was a 10 hour flight from Atlanta, Georgia and on to Ushuia, Argentina (Tierra de Fuego) was another 3 ½ hours.  From there it took 2 ½ days by ship to cross the treacherous high seas known as the Drake Passage.  The third day on the ship we were supposed to land at the Polish research station,  Arctowski  Station, at King George Island (South Shetland Islands, Antarctica) to stretch our legs on solid ground while the marathon staff landed at Bellingshausen Station to layout and mark the marathon course.  Bad weather (high winds and limited visibility) prevented us from landing at Arctowski Station so our first chance to set foot on solid ground in four days would be race day!

Unique race rules, unfathomably long journey for a marathon race.  All part of what makes this place, Antarctica such a special and so difficult an environment to race in.

Race Day: The Start through 1st quarter marathon

The Antarctica Marathon, The Last Marathon, starts from Bellingshausen Station which is on King George Island (South Shetland Islands, Antarctica).  This is a very gray and alien looking world where very little grows other than moss, and very few creatures lurk other than some penguins and a several varieties of birds.  A lunar landscape populated by numerous scientific research stations from various countries including China, Chile, Russia and Uruguay (among others). 

In years past, the Antarctica Marathon looped among the research stations as the course did a double out and back, the highlight being an ascent and descent of Collins Glacier each series.  This year Collins Glacier was out and the course would not pass through any research station (due to a variety of political and other reasons).  The race route this year would follow the first two miles of the original course that would take us from Bellingshausen Station out towards the Uruguian research station.   Instead of passing through the Uruguian base and then climbing up Collins Glacier, we stayed on the main road and climbed into the interior of the island to get the additional mile and a quarter (1/8 marathon total).  After 1/8 marathon outbound we’d turnaround and retrace our steps back to Bellingshausen Station to complete the ¼ marathon route.  Repeat four times.

At about 9:27 local time, amid a shadowless gray overcast and blustery backdrop, we were off!  From the start I was out ahead and tucked right in behind the race director (Thom Gilligan) on his ATV.   The first 100 yards of the race course would soon prove to be the only true flat ground we’d see in the entire ¼ marathon “loop.”   Though it was a flat start, it wasn’t a dry one.  Right away we were into ankle deep mud that we’d grow to hate over the next hours.  Fortunately it wasn’t clay mud and so it was just a bit slippery and very sandy and didn’t accumulate on your shoe.  Boy was it was icy cold! 

After the short flat start the route immediately veered into a muddy quagmire and started up a very steep, icy hill; right up the fall line!  The ATV labored to stay just ahead of me, this was the first of many times I’d catch up to or even pass the lead vehicle!  I tucked my head and concentrated on my footing (careful not to step on any moss! ;) ) on up the steep, rude, hill and once I crested the ATV accelerated further ahead to give me more of a cushion.  I didn’t dare look behind me to see where the other runners were, but I got a sense that I was already very alone.

Running along that first mile, I continued to push into the steady, icy, headwind (perhaps about 10-15mph at this point) and tried to get my body to warm up after standing around forever it seemed at the starting line.  This was also the first time ashore in over 3 days so I still had some sea-legs to shake off!  I felt pretty frozen and was convinced that I’d under dressed, especially as it seemed much windier here than the start.  No looking back now, all I could do was continue forward and into the wind.  However, I was loving it.  Any mud loving trail runner would adore this course.  So, like a slalom skier, I focused on staying in between course markers, which was often difficult as the route would veer from side to side on the “road” and often it seemed the route would take us off the “road” entirely. 

 I kept between the zigzagging course markers that often led right through enormous standing ponds of water, or ankle to calf deep mud; I enjoyed every minute of it!  I could tell the lead ATV was having more issues with the mud than I did as I’d often catch right up and almost overtake the slipping vehicle. 
Up and down the course rolled, very much like running on a cross-country skiing course; lot’s of short and steep ups and downs.  It was just me and the lead ATV and all of a sudden a couple of aggressive Skuas began to dive bomb towards my head.  I swear I could feel the bird’s wings just miss my head a couple of times!  I couldn’t tell for sure how close there were, but Thom would look back at me a couple of times and just laugh!  Thanks Thom! 

Soon the Skuas left me alone, I guess I was the token guinea pig this day as nobody else reported any Skua interactions.   I kept on and slowly began to warm up a bit as I passed over a succession of snow bridges and passed through the first mile on an uphill through tunnel cut through a tall snow drift!  What a tough first mile!  Just about all uphill and slick and of course, into the wind!

The next mile was a bit easier as it was rolling, but at least there were a few down hills to loosen the legs up.  Still, the ever present mud and confusedly zigzagging course route and constant head wind and the steady engine hum of the lead ATV.   Around me it was a wildly bleak landscape.  Full of browns and grays with no vegetation except for the ever present moss (and even that was difficult to see in the dim light!).  While I’ve never run on the moon (nor most likely will never), it was difficult not to make the comparison that I was indeed running along a lunar landscape.  So stark yet at the same time so beautiful!  This land is considered a desert as very little precipitation falls here annually; a cold desert. 

As I approached the second mile marker, I passed around “Lago Uruguay” near the turn off for the Uruguian research base.  Here there was a pipe line running from a pump house to the base, presumably the base’s fresh water supply line.  At the intersection, and second mile marker, a group of heavily dressed Uruguian scientists had gathered to watch and cheer on the 100 fools out running.  They had gathered behind the shelter of a small shed to keep out of the wind.  They all waved or clapped or snapped photos as I passed by.  I waved back and kept on, into the wind, one mile closer to the turn- around marker.

The third mile, again was mostly uphill, though there were still a few rollers to get the legs moving and now more snow covered sections to negotiate.  The route was much easier to follow in the section as we’d become more hemmed in by the surrounding hill side.  At a large creek crossing the course veered left onto some thick ice to cross over the creek on a thin ribbon of water cutting through the ice.  A quick hop over the water and back onto the ice back to the right and re-joining the main “road”.  The “ice sheet” as I’d call it, would become a focal point later on as it was about half a mile (or so) from the turn-around point and a good place to gauge my competition. 

Over the last half mile to the turn-around the course climbed steeply once again via a succession of ever taller rolling hills and endless mud.  The third mile marker was in an unassuming place on the side of the road, held flat on the ground by numerous small rocks.  Around another bend in the road and between some obscuring hills I approached another large snow patch.  Across this snow patch and around another, last, sinuous bend in the road and I’d arrived at the turn-around at last.  Not a moment too soon as my face felt numb from the wind and my fingers still a bit cold despite double layer of wind glove and mitten.

At the turn-around the ATV stopped to drop off Neal as the turn-around sentry.  I passed around the turn marker Alley-Oop fashion and began the long trek back towards the start-finish area.  I was now all alone, the ATV was no longer leading me.  Sweet silence, save for the never ending wind!
Wow, what a difference now.  I now had a terrific tail wind, there was no longer the endless hum of wind in my ears and I really started to warm up!  The air temperature itself was very comfortable being in the mid 30’s; but that wind was just ferocious; much like the wind I described in my Heartland 100 Mile run but much more sustained and without break.   In fact I’d say the weather conditions were perhaps nearly identical to those we’d had at the Heartland 100 Mile this past October, except today we'd have occasional smattering of light drizzle (so much for being a desert!).

The first mile on the return leg was perhaps the “fastest” on the course as it was mostly downhill and, for the most part, not overly technical in terms of zigzagging, mud and ice.  I didn’t take any mile splits, but I’d suspect this mile plus (to the two mile marker) was probably most people’s fastest mile on the course.  The tail-wind definitely helped!  Anyhow, heading back along the course this was my first indication of how much of lead I had and who my competition actually was.

I think I was nearly back to the 3 mile marker when Peter Barbera (race #4) popped around a bend in the road.  I had about a five minute lead at this point so not too shabby after an 1/8th of a marathon.  Next up, and not far behind was my better half!  Kathy was indeed running in 3rd at this point perhaps no more than a couple of minutes behind Peter.  Both of them where past the far side of the ice sheet.

I crossed back over the ice sheet and was heading uphill along one of the few places the road contoured along the hill to a narrow pass between hills.  Running in 4th at the moment was Andrew from Alaska (who we just called “Alaska” most of the time).  After him a little ways back was the true “peloton” containing (to the best of my memory) the Prince of the Netherlands, Pieter-ChristianVan Oranje-Massau, his good friend Olav Bekker from the Netherlands, Cedric Plachot from France and several others who I missed.  Right now it was still anybodies race as we all still had many more miles to go.

Over the next two miles I passed through the rest of the marathon and half-marathon race field.  Everybody was very encouraging and I returned the encouragement in kind.  Despite the long, wearying journey here and strict race rules, it was so fun to be out here, at last, doing this race; something over a couple of years in the making.  What was once a distant idea; an occasional e-mail from the Marathon Tours staff, was now very real and it was like living inside a dream that you don’t want to wake up from! Glorious!

The Uruguians were still out by the 2 mile marker and cheered and waved as I passed by.  I started to actually feel a bit over-heated by now running with the wind!  I had to unzip my shirt and race bib a bit to cool down and soon even removed my outer mittens!  The second return mile was again rolling and very muddy, not as fast as the first return mile, but still a net downhill I’d venture as we were heading back to sea level after all.   The beginning of this second return mile is quite striking as we pass by that Lake Uruguay which had a mini glacier that showed signs of calving as evidenced by huge cracks and crevasses and some small icebergs in the lake itself.

Soon this rolling mile ended as the course turned steeply downhill into the snow tunnel that marked the mile marker.  This was one of my favorite sections of the course as the route went steeply downhill through a bulldozed route through a snow bank and onward past a couple of snow bridges.  While most people would tip-toe cautiously through this area, I let gravity do it’s think and just flew down the hill with reckless abandon, confident in my footing and trail running abilities.  What a rush!

The last inbound mile contained a rather wide and “flatish” section than is just a huge muddy mess with no really good way through.  I don’t think I every quite chose the same line often having to veer around two-way traffic.  Passed the muddy bog I began the first of several “false summits” that led the final plunge down to the start finish area and end of the first quarter of the marathon.  I was well into this final series of rollers when a spotted a number of red suited figures up along the hillside.  This turned out to be a bunch of Chinese scientists from the China research station coming out to spectate.  They all waved and snapped some photos as I ran by in the mud. 

Finally I topped the last hill (or the first hill of the course) and dropped steeply down to the start finish area to finish my first “loop” in 51:28 (7:51/mile pace).  That last downhill was as equally challenging running down as up as it was very steep and slick, but lots of fun!

Race Day: The 2nd 1/4 marathon

Starting the second quarter of the race I once again got to see what kind of time gap I had.  This time it seemed my lead had grown to over 6 minutes now, however it appeared that Kathy and closed the gap quite a bit on Peter.  Alaska looked to have slipped a bit further back and the gap he held over the chase back had shrunk considerably.

I kept on just focusing on putting one foot in front of the other and trying to stay between the flags and avoiding the moss!  The headwind seemed to be even worse this time around and this was confirmed when I saw small white capped waves on Lake Uruguay when I passed by that 2 mile marker once again.  I was getting chilled to bone, but I was generating just enough internal body heat to just stay warm enough as long as I kept pushing.

Passing by the Uruguian spectators this time, one of them asked if I was the lead runner.  I said I was and he began to ham it up by running alongside me while his compatriots laughed out loud and took several photos!   I moved on and after another agonizing battle into the wind I’d arrived at the far turnaround for the second time, frozen but still moving.

Heading back, riding a wonderful tail wind I soon was well warmed up and had to once again zip down my shirt to cool off!  Incredible!  I’d expected that my lead might have grown somewhat but I was very surprised that I was nearly back to the ice sheet before I saw Peter again, followed very closely by Kathy!  So now my lead had grown to almost a mile without any real taxing effort.  It was at this point that I did come to realize that I was probably going to win this race if I didn’t do something really stupid.

But I wanted to get in a strong first half and see where I stood, so I kept on a comfortable but strong pace through half way in 1:47:14 (8:11/mile pace overall, 55:46 for lap 2, 8:30/mile pace). 

The Rest of the Way

Starting the 3rd quarter of the marathon I saw that Kathy had indeed overtaken Peter for 2nd place overall!  Wow she was having a great day!  I continued to cruise along and over the second half of the race I worked to stabilize my lead at right around a mile.  I was now in race management mode.  Just keep going and don’t screw it up!  This wasn’t going to be a PR run, rather this was a 100% tactical race so why do anything dumb that could jeopardize all I’d worked for?  So I did slow some as I figured most of the rest of the field would be doing much the same as we were all facing the same brutal race course and wicked head winds. 

My third lap was a bit slower at just under 59 minutes (58:59, 9:00/mile pace; 2:46:13 for ¾ marathon, 8:28/mile pace overall), but then again the winds did continue to strengthen and, admittedly, I really didn't feel 100% this day having been battling some serious sinus issues over the past few days.  No excuses,  but I was working hard and digging deep. 

So now I was on my last lap, the bell lap, and this was indeed my favorite lap of them all because this was it!  I puttered along, now walking some of the steeper last bits on the tougher of the hills (though often I’d try and do it when nobody was around to witness! Ha!).  I was comfortable with the lead I had and knew that if push came to shove I could dig down and really go to the well effort wise if I was forced.  Luckily I didn’t have to worry as Kathy was keeping a safe distance back (still right around a mile) though I could tell she had the fire in her eyes and was pushing hard!  It didn’t occur to me until I saw her for the last time, on the ice sheet, that she was on track to break four hours if she hustled.  And she was indeed hustling!  Good for her!  She was definitely aiming for a stronger finish than me!

At last I was into the final mile.  I admit I did kind of tear up a bit when I truly accepted that I was going to win the 11th Antarctica Marathon, The Last Marathon!  I was pretty excited and tried to look good finishing up by picking up the pace and trying to finish strong.  I thanked the various volunteers along the course and soon I was bombing down the last downhill riding a gravity wave of emotion!

In as good a sprint as I could manage I whooped and yelled as I crossed the finish line; my arms flung in the air over my head!

My final time was 3:50:02 (8:47 / mile overall, last lap 1:02:44, 9:35 / mile)  

I’d just changed into heavier clothing including my water proof boots and rain gear (in preparation for riding the zodiac back to the ship) when I could see a pink shirted figure approaching the finish line; Kathy!  I quickly retrieved my camera and was on hand whooping as she crossed the finish line in 3:58:59!

Spectacular!  Another Youngren sweep (yeah it’s happened before)!  A win for Fleet Feet Racing and the Wasatch Speed Goat Mountain Racing Team!

Rounding out the top three overall finishers Peter Christian van Oranje pulled of a gutsy and speedy last lap to overtake Peter Barbera just a 100 yards or so from the finish to earn the 3rd podium spot in 4:22:55!  What a finish!

Although I did get the victory the performance of the day if not one of the finest performances of all time at the Antarctica Marathon must go to my lovely wife Kathy.  Her sub four hour performance was the first in race history by a woman and she darn near won the race out right!  Believe me, I was looking over my shoulder quite a bit on that last leg!  We are husband and wife, but on this day we were definitely competitors!


To put a little context into this year's marathon, I got to looking at what past race results I could find just for comparison I added the following table found at

Year    Winning Time    Median Time    Standard Deviation      
2010    3:50    5:50    ~58 minutes? Not sure.      
2009    3:04    5:27    56:01      
2008    3:09    5:43    58:27      
2007    3:51    5:57    1:01:18      
2005    3:49    5:58    56:35      
2002    4:09    5:58    57:35   

So it seems this year’s running was not the slowest in terms of median finish time, winning time nor standard deviation of finish times, but it probably was one of the more difficult in terms of the weather and actual course conditions.  The other caveat is that this was the first time this particular course has been run.  In years past  the course had a central starting / finish area and runners basically did  loop to the south then and out and back to the north for half a marathon and then repeated.  This year’s course ran on the first 2 miles of the old course (considered the most difficult part of the old course) FOUR TIMES rather than two times.  The third outbound mile went inland and largely climbed (like I described) the old route took that turn into the Uruguian research station, dropped down to sea level (probably around 200 feet) , ran along the shore line and then climbed up Collin’s Glacier for a quarter mile or so before turning around… The old southern loop is considered very flat and on a better maintained “road” through the Russian, Chilean and Chinese research stations.  Also, in a lot of previous years the course was either dry or frozen over, either way the footing was much faster…  Anyhow, who knows and who cares right?