Race Report

RTP-Antarctica: To the End

Excitement. And fear. Mostly excitement. A little dread. What is happening? Is it over? How can it be over when it just began? I’ve been living a dream for the past year, and it hasn’t sunk in that I am awake. The day starts as any other, but has the self-induced weight of something much more powerful.  The sun brilliantly blazed on the playground of white. The rays laid over the land like a warm blanket, softening the hard exterior and allowing icy faults to appear as I ran through a minefield. Each step was a gamble. The softening of ice is not as immediately visible as the melting of snow. The ice had hollowed and allowed only the lightest to carry on. I watched the 5’1” man in front of me speed over the top of the ever hollowing ice while I continued to tumble into icy caverns alongside my unwieldy friends. There were brief periods of respite, but never for more than a tenth of a mile. It didn’t matter, it couldn’t matter. I moved forward and couldn’t help but smile. The sort of smile that only happens when you are finished with something you always wanted to finish but were actively realizing you never wanted to end.

My feet brushed against the rocks which lined that oft-wind-buffeted beach and drew my eye toward the cold, seemingly desolate arctic ocean. But looking closer, it was anything from desolate. A few penguins languished in the sun while the others dove in and out of the water. Large breasted brown skuas skulked around the outcropping, looking for penguin eggs to snatch up. Algae drifted along in the icy depths. This place wasn’t desolate. It was a place where animals can and do thrive. I continued on. Coming over the checkpoint for the first time this day was unlike the others. I had forgotten my punch card to track my laps, and didn’t really care. At this point it wasn’t about the race. It was about the moment. I was told that another punch card would be waiting at the end of the next lap. I continued. I was already flagging. My legs couldn’t hold up. An undeniable weakness overcame my left leg continuously. I looked ahead and  saw another 250km finisher cross the finish under the softly beating Antarctic sun. I was now walking. I was tired. My leg was weak. But I walked because of where I was, not how I felt. The course neared the end and I met up with the finished leaders as they began their victory lap. This was the end. The very last lap. The Grand Slam complete. My triumph full. I took extra time this loop. There was nothing to be gained from going too quickly and everything to lose from savoring the experience too little. The rays of that sun led my eyes to a sea inlet disguised as a lake. A deep, mysterious blue that made me feel like I was staring into the soul of the island. Towering above was a mysterious but altogether friendly looking volcano under this calm sun. I changed focus and happily dawdled through the battle strewn minefield of ice and finally to the beach. In the distance stood the finish line filled with laughter and medals. But what caught my attention was a giant 6’4” tall waddling bow-tied penguin. Beckoning in a friend to end a yearlong journey.

Even now, as I write this, I realize that I haven’t let it go. I have postponed writing this for 3 months, because I didn’t want it to be over. I thought that if I never published this story, my story, that I could hold onto the magic I shared with these strangers for just a little bit longer. The races would never have to end if I allowed them to live on in my head. I’ve allowed the thought to creep into my life, letting my day to day events be grey and dull. Pitying myself for living such a comparably dull existence. But over time, I have realized that the magic was never held in the places. But the people in those places. The ones who shared in laughs by the night fires. The people who encouraged me to push on when I could only muster curses and grunts. The eternally happy. The incredibly driven. The idealists. The places I had been were meaningless without the people I shared them with. The people that had become some of my closest friends. The ones who made life just a little less dull.

RTP-Antarctica: Day 5

Ahhhh. The open sea. Many die out here. And as I lean into my newly acquired trekking pole, I would be happy to join them. The wind ebbs and flows into the snow. The penguins curiously waddle to and fro, going nowhere in particular.  I climb up and down, going nowhere at all. My pain is unsustainable. The “easier” terrain batters my legs with bullets. The uphills inject poison into my veins.  I fall into the snow and laugh with friends. A painful laugh, but not without joy. The downhill has turned into my ice skating rink and I am not graceful. Each step gives me that sharp intake of breath only associated with injury. Each checkpoint laughs at me as I wave hello and quickly wave goodbye. We both know that in 20 minutes that I will be waving again. At least I’m never alone for too long. But it doesn’t mean I don’t feel lonely. Pain does that. I am separated from reality. I am alone while running in a group. While shuffling behind someone. While sliding alone. After a while, I don’t feel anything. No pain, no joy. Just emptiness. I know that I am not finished, and so I continue.

 

A quiet man has finished. The leader. He is done for the day. For the race. He greets me with the smile of someone who knows how much I am struggling, and is happy to be done with it himself. Empathetic and knowing. The image of the leader sticks in my head until another wriggles inside. A runner running as if from Marathon to Athens. The colors of his country fly behind him. He dives to the ground. He cries and shares his own victory with the rest of us, and then disappears. The ranks are thinning, the pain is building, and I have nothing but thoughts of warmth. Not the kind of warmth that comes from being bundled up in 3 flannels during winter. The kind of warmth experienced at a summer bonfire. I exit the current moment and dream of other things. And as I crest the top of the island for the 19th time, I stop. I take the headphone out of my ear. I feel the chill of the mild Antarctic spring. I listen. I hear the cracking of ice close and far. Out of sight, I hear the rumble caused only by an avalanche. On the ocean, the fog is building up around the icebergs. Majestic mountains cower in the distance, covered in fresh, unburdened snow. Muted by circling flurries. Rocks, dirt, and water. That is all it is. Things I try to keep out of my house. The stuff needed for being dirty and for cleaning up.

 

I travel without my headphones for a while. Up and down. My music is the constant bleating of the penguins. The ones experiencing the day just as they experience any other. Ripping through the glassy water, huddling up, and running those errands that only penguins run. I’ve been running for a while and look down to the checkpoint, they’ve stopped. I take a moment to look once more at the land which surrounds me.


It seems like more than just rocks, dirt, and water.

RTP-Antarctica: Day 4

Thanksgiving day was here and I’d lost all hope. Gentle ice floes floated atop the ocean full of jutting mountains and hidden creatures. I slowly made my motions through the morning and took in the cold breeze which whipped across my face as the zodiac dodged ice and penguin to carry me to my base for the day. My thigh rankled and clacked as I put my first step on land. Immediately, I began to slip backwards. An unknown savior reached out and grabbed my flailing arm before I took a backward-dive. Cautiously, I crept toward the landing. Once there, I fetched the shoes out of my drybag, sat down, ripped off the boots and gently placed the shoes onto unwilling feet. There was no swelling to see, only pain to feel. The constant water and ice that sidled into my shoes through the days must have had an ice bag effect and allowed any swelling to go down, and possibly hid any serious injury. I finished buckling up my gaiters and heard the voice of an organizer,  “You can’t sit on this side.” I looked where I was sitting. The wrong side. The organizer said it twice more to two separate people. No one moved. We were all determined to expend as little energy as possible. THe clock ticked down and I was feeling better. The adrenaline was coursing through my veins and the tissue damage I had was caught in the moment. I mentally stretched over the prospect of the first lap, and then began like everyone else. Slowly falling through unbroken, thick, snow.

 

Steps are a drudgery while breaking snow. The terrain tilted uphill with drift occasionally beyond my knees. At the end of the first kilometer a gift was given: Perfect snow. My feet lifted and pounded through the snow, faster than was reasonable. Each step rudely crashed through the snow as if I was running only a mile. Quickly, the track turned downhill. Downhill enough to be playful and icy enough to keep me in check. I continued riding adrenaline downhill and realized that the group had already spread out. I was running a 3.9 kilometer loop and  felt blissfully alone within the white mystery of the Antarctic wilderness. As I looked upwards towards the towering mountaintop above,  the wind began kicking up wisps of snow. Directing my eyes forward, the flags of our beautiful little checkpoint waved me in.

 

The wind that had taken just a wisp of snow from the top was quickly rushing down. I couldn’t tell the difference between the top of the hill and the beginning of the snow swirl without sliding off my goggles. I powered towards the white wall. As I hit the top, the wind was cried out louder and bolder than before. The blowing white created a vast emptiness of blank canvas before me. I was a man in no-man’s land. I slowly picked up my speed and began the running course once more. Hoping that I could find my stride in the indelible wind conditions. I started with a quick walk which morphed into a shuffle and quickly a giddy skate. The wind disapproved and gushed straight into my whole body.. As my music, the wind, and my pain all vied for my attention I lifted my eyes and could see the checkpoint once more.

 

Looking up from the checkpoint, the wind had sustained its frenzy. There was no storm brewing, just a constant wind kicking up snow. I looked onward to continue my trek. Once getting to the top, the wind had decided to let me pass in relative peace. I checked behind my shoulder to get a look at the mountain. Visibility was returning, and my legs were still feeling pretty good. It was shaping up to be a good day. I coasted through my 3rd lap and looked down at the checkpoint where I noticed a collection of people around their drybags. Slightly confused, I raced down to the finish to check what was happening. I arrived and  was told to “Get my stuff out of my bag and get ready to reboard the ship.” I looked up at the mountain. It was no worse than when I went up the last two times, and did not look like it was going to work into a furious storm. Although I felt fairly fresh, I wouldn’t complain. If fate tells me I have a day off, then I will have a day off. I slowly slide off my shoes, get into my rubber boots, and wait. I grew cold as stood around and let the sweat underneath my jacket turn to ice. I moved my arms closer to my sides and used the bag to buffer the wind until the zodiac came.

 

I climbed back onto the ship and looked back at the mountain. The wind was receding and the visibility was returning. Confused but unconcerned, I started toward my room but changed course as my nose caught the sweet smell of food. Looking left towars my usual meeting place with my cookies, a large bowl of green soup drifted into my hands. Only knowing my hunger, I gobbled it up without hesitation. I sat there lapping up my few bowls of soup and sharing in the relaxed conversation of those around me before retiring to my room for a shower.


As I relaxed and let the warm water envelope me, I heard someone speaking on the loudspeaker. A second later  I heard our guide say, “My dear Polar Explorers, we have spotted Orcas outside on our port side. Please come up to the front of the ship if you can.” I quickly shut off the water, threw on all my clothes and ran up to the front of the ship in order to catch a glimpse. The group was popping up on all sides. The family frolicked and enjoyed our company for an hour before we continued onward through the ice field. The ice grandly cracked as our ship effortlessly passed through the ocean of invisible ocean. A calm, cold wind kissed my face as mountains peered out from the fog beyond and  Leopard and Crabeater Seals met our gaze as we thundered by. As I floated down to dinner, I realized that I really did have something to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.

RTP-Antarctica: Day 3

It was snowing. A smile drifted upon my face. Maybe snow meant we wouldn’t get out today. My legs would thank me. The icebergs floated forbiddingly in the foggy and wind filled distance. I looked across the ocean I could see that our boat was still moving. We had not yet arrived. I unhurriedly dressed and walked, visibly pained, to the stairs. I climbed down as deliberately as someone picking mines in minesweeper. I arrived at breakfast and quickly lost interest. More of the same, and beginning to get old. I had little desire to eat anything but the beans, and the beans made me nervous because of the state of the Antarctic toilets.

 

Let me tell you about our on land use toilets. Take an average, everyday toilet and reduce it in size. Not by a lot, just 3/4th’s the size of a regular toilet. Now, attempt to sit down. Oh no! Wait, don’t sit down, that toilet seat has been sitting in a cold environment with snow all around, it’ll be way too cold to do anything but scare the poop back inside. So now, the decision is to squat. The problem is how sore your legs are. Imagine, you just spent 20 hours in the last two days on your feet, and now you have to bend into an isometric hold while simultaneously using the restroom and aiming into a smaller than average hole. Now, in the isometric hold, you look around for something to stabilize you, something to balance with, you suddenly realize that there are no walls and no door. The only stabilization you will be receiving is sitting on the toilet seat. So, against your better judgement, you decide to sit. But DANGIT! People have been peeing all over the toilet seat and now the pee is all over your behind. Attempting to alleviate the problem, you look around for toilet paper. To your right, you see toilet paper on a makeshift roll...completely wet from the wind and moisture around it. Reaching into your bag, you find that your personal supply suffers from the same issue. Uncomfortable and sad, the rest of the day is spent in misery. So, you can see, eating beans was not something I wanted to do during breakfast.

 

While eating my fruit and bread, I felt a sudden lack of movement. I looked outside and, to my chagrin, we had stopped and the snow had cleared. The day looked, once again, like the Lord decided to smile upon us. Sometimes, I really wish that guy kept his smile to himself. Before I knew it, I was climbing out of the zodiac and onto the land. I took a deep breath in order to calm myself and received a resounding response from the Antarctic mainland. Shit. The strong scent of penguin poo filled my nostrils. The response was clear for this day, there would be no calm.

 

I looked up at the course. And I mean looked up. From my vantage point at the starting line, there was a trail shooting straight uphill. Once on the top, the trail didn’t spend too much time on level ground before deciding enough was enough and going downhill. All in a 1.4 kilometer loop. It was the day before thanksgiving, but I was the furthest thing away from thankful on this first day on the cold mainland. The countdown rang out, and for the third day in a row, we sputtered to a beginning. The leaders had the unenviable task of breaking a snowy trail that bore more resemblance to a cross-country ski track than anything any sane human would ever run on. Even behind the leaders, it was slow going. Every step was a gamble on how deep my leg would sink. Sometimes it would stay gliding on the top, like some untouchable champion. Quickly though, that same foot would sink into a pile of snow almost deeper than my leg was long. After an exceedingly long time for a short track, I arrived at the top of the hill, which offered the idea of running. Gauging myself, I charged through the thick snow like a child. Passing a few as I kicked up the snow created from the new path I forged. And just like that, downhill again. Quickly, I was back at the start. Only to begin the uphill path again.

 

And again. I stared up at path, crestfallen. The 11th godforsaken time I have to go up this thing. And for what?! The anger had been building ever since I felt something incredibly wrong in my right leg. There was nothing so dramatic as a snap or pop, but rather a gradual stiffening into a pirate-like peg and an accompanying foul mood. I pulled aside one of the coordinators, “This is ridiculous! None of us signed up to run 3 long marches in a row. We are all on the brink of injury and you won’t let us stop just because no one has made it to 250 in years.” I shuffled off in a huff. Furious. Along with the fatigue-induced anger came two problems: My goggles, perfect up until this point, were constantly fogging up and impossible to see out of. Even with a good leg, my ability to move quickly was hampered by the lack of eyesight. If that wasn’t bad enough, the snow had begun to pick up and my slow pace was slowing my creation of body heat. I was in desperate need of some new clothing. As I got down, I was drawn in by a large collection of people on the tarp, and quickly learned that hot water had been brought in from the ship. I slipped into my unopened-and-unused all year until now Poncho for warmth, grabbed some instant mashed potatoes from my bag, and poured the hot water into the bowl. Ready and able to sit down, relax, and eat. Miserable, I looked around and noticed a familiar look on the faces of those around me. The face of suffering. An empty resignation in some, an indignant anger in many of the others. There were a few happy sufferers, but these were not the people sitting on the tarp with me. These were the ones not taking a long break on the tarp. The ones who didn’t have to put on extra clothes to stay warm. Personally, I had switched from anger to resignation. And with that resignation, I continued on.

 

By loop 30, I was out of it. I could put zero pressure on my leg and was mentally ready to break. But still, I moved forward. By the 33rd loop, I was just attempting to make it back with no permanent injury. Slowly avoiding precipitous drops in the trail and shuffling along as quickly as I could. On the bright side, the snow had stopped and the temperature felt much nicer than it had. On the downside, I was hot again, and had less than sufficient energy to take off my jacket. By loop 37, it was over. I came down, gingerly slipped into my rubber boots, and let out a silent prayer to the smiling God on high. Let me be able to run tomorrow.

RTP-Antarctica: Day 1

I am going to be releasing this one in stages. I would love feedback on whether you like me to lump my race reports together into one document or if you like them separate. Thank you.

 

BEEP. BEEP. BEEP. 4:45 AM. Rise and shine. I shot out of bed and silenced my phone. The sun was already shining through the curtains, so I took a peak. Brighter by the snow, King George’s Island was right in front of me. Although the base was still sleepy, I was ready for action. Heart beating quickly but body still waking up, I slowly picked up my bags and packed in my final essential items for the day. I left the equipment in my room and lumbered down to breakfast. Entering the dining room, I had more options than I knew what to do with. Toast, cereal, granola, fruits. The things psuedo-athletes crave. Knowing that a long day was ahead of me, I stocked up on most anything I could fit on my plate. Regardless of whether or not it is a free buffet, I always tend to pile more than should reasonably fit on one plate...on one plate. This breakfast was no different. I stuffed my face, nerves could not contain my hunger. I rapidly left breakfast in order to put on the rest of my gear and get ready for our quick morning briefing.

 

Upstairs in the lounge the anxiousness was palpable, but so was the excitement. The weather outside looked crisp and refreshing. Almost inviting. The colorful buildings starkly contrasted the snow even more than they had in the early morning. “The loop will be somewhere around 14 kilometers. And hopefully we can go for 13 hours.” The words jammed into my core. How long? Doing loops? Deeearrr lord, strike me down. I convinced myself that it wouldn’t be that bad, and headed toward the zodiac boarding.

 

The parka was too much. About the same as a winter in Kansas, I was already regretting my decision to wear my warm Patagonia onesie. Antarctica was serving up surprises already, and the first one was that I was hot. Climbing into the zodiac for the first time was kind of like getting into an untippable, wide, canoe. Which is to say, it is just an open aired boat. While the material looks like it was sold for $10 at the nearest Wal-Mart under the section “Arctic Adventures” I had faith that there would be no sinking while I was on board. The zodiac quietly zipped through the water and my feet soon kissed the shore of Antarctica. An island off the coast, but Antarctica. Taking off my required rubber boots and fetching my shoes out of the drybag, I was more excited every second. I had plans to improve my results from the previous races, and the sensation of being on my 7th continent of the year surged through me. We lined up for photos before the beginning and my legs were kicking and shaking like a man who needed to move.

 

Finally, for the last first time this year, the countdown for the last first day of the year began. “3...2...1” I didn’t even hear what she said, “Lift Off” for all I know. I was in the zone as quickly as the running began, and we quickly disappeared into the snowdrift uphill. Without realizing how quickly I was moving for a 13 hour run, I began behind the top few leaders and tried to convince myself that this was where I belonged. Together, we passed the furthest point away from camp and returned from whence we came. Seeing the mix of faces working their way up what I was coming down was a joy and a luxury. During races it is not often that you have contact with every single person that you are racing against, but this was not an ordinary race.  I kept going and got a feel for the loop, which was more like a figure-eight. Starting at the finish/beginning, we traveled west from the Bellingshausen Station through rolling snow banks for a few kilometers and then turned back on the same route, although slightly easier on the return journey. As we came to the base, we took a turn going around and through, eastward now. Mostly on melted snow and ice as the temperature took a turn for the heat as the sun came out of her cloudy cave. As the heat increased, my speed decreased, and I quickly fell off the lead. The snow was zapping my energy, but more than energy it tested the strength of my core. By middle of my second lap, the weakness I didn’t know existed cropped up. My lower back. What began as a sensation had quickly turned into a hindrance. And through another loop, a downright injury. If I had the strength, I could run through the snow. The softness of the landings created a buffer for the shock absorption of my back. Unfortunately, the snow on the east side had completely disappeared. The shock of going from soft landings quickly to hard pack dirt created shooting pains all the way down my right leg and connecting to my back. At around 10 hours, I could not run at all. Nervous about my ability to finish if I pushed, I walked the final 3 hours. Not my anticipated finish, but the finish that I thought would best serve me over the week. If there was anything I had learned over the year, it was the importance of letting the body ease into the first day. There was nothing of ease this day. As I ended and climbed up in the zodiac after 13 hours on my feet and another early morning quickly approaching, all I could think was if I could really do this. If I could really continue on for another day.