The Loneliness of the Distance Ultra Runner
Go where even penguins fear to tread, where the sun never sets, and a savage and beautiful landscape will break down even the hardiest stamina. Antarctica is the end of the world, the frozen continent, the coldest place on the planet, and the last place on earth you’d think of going for a run. Yet every year a contingent of 20-odd, stubborn athletes brave its wind blasted interior to jog across 100km (62 miles) of ice, rock, and snow drifts. They appear like moon walkers, wrapped up in Gore-Tex and face masks with goggles and gloves ensuring not an inch of human flesh is exposed to withering snowstorms and hurricane gales. They may sit out for days in the desolate Patriot Hills, 483km (300 miles) north of the South Pole, waiting for the bad weather to pass before they dash across the tundra in a race that usually takes 20 hours. They risk –4°F (–20°C) temperatures on a landscape 900m (3,000 ft.) high with the occasional field of bottomless ice chasms to keep the runner alert.
Antarctica is famous for monumental peacock-blue icebergs shaped in surreal formations, craggy glaciers that crash into the sea, sheer ice-encrusted walls that form magnificent canals, and jagged peaks that jut out of icy fields. On the shores, several hundred thousand penguins can be found nesting and chattering away along the coast. Humpback, orca, and minke whales are often visible, nosing out of the frigid water, as are elephant, Weddell, leopard, and crabeater seals. Bird-watchers can spend hours studying the variety of unique seabirds that reside here, including petrels and albatrosses. Yet the ultra marathon runners see none of this as the course is so far from the shore there is absolutely no life, just a pristine ice block that allows them to boast they are one of the few who have run on the seventh continent.
First run in 2004, the Antarctic Ultra Race is the ultimate conclusion in a recent phenomenon known as ultra running. No longer content with city marathons and country runs, a small but growing band of athletes is choosing to run races of between 201 and 306km (125–190 miles) in isolated parts of the world. Such events are the supreme test in endurance, motivation, and concentration with many participants describing the experience as a type of epiphany, where everything superfluous falls away, the world becomes simpler, and the pain and hardship of such gruelling marathons ultimately lead to elation and a sense of purpose. It is no accident that most ultra runners are over 40. This could be explained by the fact that most events are expensive—the Antarctica trip costs $16,500, with the 8-day itinerary setting out from the Chilean Patagonian town of Punta Arenas. Yet a more fitting explanation is that some people are just not happy with golfing or sailing. They seek adrenaline rushes and excruciating challenges in unforgettable places, and the Antarctica ultra marathon certainly meets the criteria. —CO’M
When to Go: Dec. Check website for details.
Punta Arenas, Chile.
$$ Hotel Diego de Almagro Punta Arenas, Av. Colón 1290 Ciudad, Punta Arenas ( 56/61/208800; www.dahoteles.com). $$ Hotel Cabo de Hornos, Plaza Muñoz Gamero 1039, Punta Arenas ( 56/61/715-000; www.hoteles-australis.com).