Friday, February 7, 2014

A Race at the End of the World - White Continent Marathon, King George Island, Antarctica

This is the first of several blogs on our trip to cross off two more continents from our Marathon bucket list. 

We've raced on trail. We've raced in mid-20's temperatures. We've raced at night and a few hours of stepping off a plane. With all that experience, we were ready for anything.

We got to Punta Arenas, Chile on Friday, January 24th about 3 PM local time. After 19 hours of travel, we had a light dinner and a good 9 hours of sleep. We woke up Saturday morning with the hotel buffet at Diego del Almagro expecting to do the Punta Arenas Marathon on Sunday. The weather in Antarctica didn't look good enough for us to fly in, but they told us to be ready because things change quickly.

Boy, did they. At 1 PM Saturday, just as we were heading out to explore the city, our tour directors caught us in the lobby to let us know the forecast had cleared and we were going to get on a plane to Antarctica leaving Sunday morning at 12:45 AM. 


The preferred method of communication was the sign between the elevators in the lobby. Not everyone had a data plan and the wifi was sometimes excruciatingly slow.

It was hopeless trying to nap before dinner. We got one, maybe two hours of sleep. Pretty much everything we learned about pre-race fueling and rest went out the window. We had a group dinner scheduled for 8 pm with a briefing at 9:30 pm. The bus left for the airport at 10:45 pm. 

One flight on the board. Antarctica at 00:45
The airport was deserted except for our group of 68 marathoners and the DAP airlines staff who were flying with us and supporting the race. We had an inflight meal that almost no one ate on the two hour and 15 minute flight. There was also an open bar. I'm glad we had the good sense to pass on that also. We landed with just a few bumps on a gravel runway (!). Two and a half years of waiting and we were finally on Antarctica, just after 3 AM Chile time. The forecast predicted that we had about 8 hours to complete the half, full or ultra marathon.

Applying some lessons learned from the prior year, the efficiency of the race organizer's set up was phenomenal. The gear tent and two Teepee porta potty tents were ready before we walked up and the pace car was warming up within 10 minutes of us deplaning. We had almost no time to do any dynamic stretches before we started. We didn't even have time to get cold. Temperatures at the 3:19 AM race start were in the low 30's F (0 C) with wind chill in the teens (-8 C). Equipment list for those of you who were wondering. It worked out really well.

Top: Mizuno Thermo Cap, Garmin Virb hat-mounted camera. Light tint sunglasses, Serius facemask.
Core/Arms/Hands: North Face Flight series wind stopper jacket, Under Armor Cold Gear reflective/compression, Mizuno Thermo long sleeve zip for the last lap, Mizuno Thermo gloves inside Brooks Windstopper touch screen gloves. Charcoal hand warmers in between hand layers for last lap
Bottoms: CW-X compression tights, generic wicking underwear
Feet: Smart Wool ankle length socks, Solomon XT wings 3 trail shoes and gaiters.

Photo Credit:  Victoria Paz Ujević Stein
The course was a 4.35 mile round trip to the Chinese base with a total ascent of 2228 feet for the full. The half marathon went out for 3 laps, the full for 6 and the ultra for 7. Each event had a partial loop at the end to make it an official distance. It took about a half hour for the sun to come up bright enough for Susan to see with her prescription sunglasses with the lightest tint. Clear tinted glasses for early races are recommended, especially where footing is sketchy.

The downhill about a half mile on the way out was the only snow on the actual course. There was plenty around on either side of us though! 
It was summer in the Southern hemisphere. The course had breathtaking views of snow covered hills and ocean, but only a few stretches of ice or snow on the trail itself. We had a few patches of deep gravel or large river rock so we looked for the packed areas for better footing. Blogspot has a video upload limit of 100MB, so I've posted a 11.5 minute video of the course on Facebook here

The best thing about the multiple out-and-back loops was that we could see everyone and cheer them on. Coming back to the starting point is always a mental challenge, especially if the course or weather isn't friendly. The temptation to pack it in gets stronger with every lap, but the encouragement in this group really kept us going. There were a half dozen penguins near the 1 mile point that I'm sure added a few minutes to everyone's times.

Kerem and Rachel tag teamed for a few pictures in the middle of their race. Not many PRs that day.

I clocked in with a time of 2:55 at the half marathon split. I thought about keeping that up for a sub-6 walking marathon on a pretty brutal course, but the second race in Punta Arenas was coming up. It also started getting even colder, dropping into the teens with wind chill near zero F (-8 C / -18 C). By lap 4, a good number of us were adding layers. Colleen was keeping us updated on the weather window. We had dropped from 8 hours to 7, but we were still looking good for everyone to finish on the continent. Susan finished her first half split in 3:05 and took time on her last lap to take pictures. My Virb battery cut out after 3:10 so I couldn't take any finish line video. 

About the time we finished the half, Richard Biddle had finished a blazing full marathon split in around 3:10. He finished the 50K in 3:51 - a course record. The women's race was fun to watch as both leaders, Suzy and Witt, were wearing balaclavas so it looked like a pair of ninjas chasing each other.

Back in 2011, I stopped at mile 23 of a brutally hot Solar Eclipse Marathon to make sure Susan got through the sugar cane fields. This time around, she was looking stronger and emphatically told me to JUST FINISH and not wait. I did. A wardrobe change and the extra cold winds slowed my second half to finish in 6:21. I DID catch a shivering Susan before she went out for her final adjustment loop and gave her a pair of charcoal hand warmers and her down jacket. I waited for her at the finish line with a cup of hot tea for her 6:48 finish. Much of the second half of her race was spent with camera in hand.

Photo credits: Imran Ahmed (@photoimran)
I signed up for a different Antarctica race three years ago. Since that event included a long boat ride into Antarctica, Susan with her legendary sea sickness issues didn't want to go. When we found the Marathon Adventures Tour that involved a flight into Antarctica, she jumped on board. I'm grateful for the opportunity to continue to share this journey with the love of my life.

I mean, who else would I want to be with when we go to the End of the World?


Marathon Adventures held the first White Continent Marathon in 2013. Flying to Antarctica can be unpredictable and the weather can change quickly. In the inaugural year, the race was stopped due to weather less than 6 hours in and several participants had to finish their mileage in Chile. While that created some controversy as to if that counted as a marathon, Marathon Adventures set out to make things right, inviting six of the 2013 group to come back with expenses paid, minus airfare to Punta Arenas for 2014. This year all six of them finished. Results are posted here.

The Marathon Adventures staff (Steve, Pam and Colleen) were very accommodating as long as you let them know what you need ahead of time. Given the technology situation, using the elevator signs for updates was a great idea for communication. Susan and I highly recommend them for destination races! We booked the trip through Kathy Loper Events. Kathy's tour package was essentially the same, but with one extra night of lodging. Kathy was very responsive to questions before the trip including the logistics of travel insurance, course information and schedules. For those of you thinking about signing up for the White Continent/Punta Arenas trip, just be ready to be flexible. Event travel plans can change quickly. Just roll with it.

Data from my Fenix including actual proof of location can be found on Garmin Connect. Here's the map. We really did it!

The White Continent Marathon was Ron's 13th full marathon and Susan's 12th. It was also our 4th Continent for full marathons. Once I get some sleep and get through a stack of work emails, we'll be working on the Punta Arenas Half and Full Marathon and 50K blog this weekend.

More coverage from the local newspapers and internet are linked on our Marathoning For Life page. 
"More than 60 runners from around the world enjoyed marathon in Antarctica" - La Presna Austral

"10 year old finished his second marathon in Antarctica" - La Presna Austral. Article on Nikolas Toochek

"15 year old Marathoner: 7 Marathons in 7 Continents" - YouTube replay of Kristen De Sousa's interview.

"Wyoming Runner Headed to Antarctica on Schedule to Break World Record" Runner's Web Artcile on Brent Weigner

"TEDxDubai 2011 | Maria Conceicao | Turning caterpillars into butterflies" Maria's Ted Talk describing the Maria Cristina Foundation to provide secondary education to children in Bangladesh.

"Three Area Residents Run a Marathon at the Bottom of the World" Kansas City coverage for Chau, Michael and Kerm.


  1. Thanks Ron & Susan for the positive press! It was great to meet you both! Look forward to seeing you on another Adventure!

  2. I can't imagine things going any better for the two races, Steve. Thanks for an experience we'll treasure for the rest of our lives!