Michigan's Only Statewide Road Running Magazine

July-August 2002

Michigan Runner & Fitness Sports

Going South--Way South--for the Winter

by Don Kern

When I got wind that Brent Weigner from Cheyenne, Wyo., was trying to organize a South Pole marathon, I knew I had to be there. What the heck, snow two miles deep combined with 40-below temperatures and nearly two miles of elevation made it more temptation than I could bear. Adventure Network International, the only company that takes tourists to the interior of Antarctica, organized this adventure. It was to be an eight- day expedition leaving from Punta Arenas, Chile, Jan. 4 and returning Jan. 11. We got more than our money's worth. Six athletes - three Americans, an Irishman, and two Germans - met in Punta Arenas. We took advantage of a three-day weather delay by taking a weekend trip to Torres del Paine National Park for some hiking, trail running and guanaco chasing. Guanacos, which are closely related to llamas, feared nothing and seemed to be everywhere. This was only the start of our delays. When we arrived at ANI's Patriot Hills camp, the staff had news for us. Before we could fly to the starting line, three other trips had been scheduled using our airplane. In other words, our two nights in Patriot Hills would now be four, if the weather cooperated. We would also have to sleep three nights in tents on the Polar Plateau to acclimatize, instead of the two that were advertised. Of course, the weather didn't cooperate. When the decision was finally made to take us south, after 10 nights in Patriot, one of our party decided he couldn't risk being away from work two more weeks. So Brent, Richard Donovan, Dean Karnazes, Ute Gruener and I flew south with four guides, a doctor and three-man flight crew. We arrived at our campsite, nearly 28 miles from the South Pole, late that night. After setting up tents we started the camp stoves, which would melt snow almost continually for the entire length of our stay. We dug a hole for our "ice toilet," stacking snow blocks on the windward side to protect us from Mother Nature when we were answering her call. The view was flat and white, in all directions, as far as the eye could see. Duncan, our doctor, monitored our pulse oxygen levels two or three times a day to make sure we adapted to our environment. All OK.

We awoke the third morning for the race. We had planned a staggered start so by mid-race we would be fairly close together, making us safer and easier to support. Ute and I started in the sunshine at 6 a.m., with Richard and Brent taking off an hour later, then Dean at 8. We would run with packs containing spare clothes, food, water and a down jacket. Carrying these through snow at 10,000 feet, with temperatures 25 below zero, wasn't easy. Miles took Ute and me a half-hour to complete.

By 7:30, all had turned white with an icy fog. It would be impossible to move the plane to the 14-mile mark. Doug, our expedition leader, tried to turn on his snowmobile to tell us that the race was cancelled. But, with his goggles fogged and no horizon visible, he fell to the ground instead. The snowmobile stalled often as we tried to get back to camp. We spent about 10 minutes driving in circles before we found our way back to the airplane.

It was apparent to everyone that we wouldn't be able to run the race as planned. A bad decision by a runner or staff, a snowmobile breakdown or instant weather change could mean injury, even death. We spent the next 36 hours trying to figure out how to make this excursion a success. In the end, a compromise was reached. Brent and Richard would wear the two pairs of snowshoes we had in camp, and would run the original marathon course with Dean. Both snowmobiles would support them so they would not have to carry packs. Ute and I flew to the Pole and ran a half-marathon, doing out-and-back loops on the last mile of the course, so we'd have support every other mile.

All of us successfully covered our distances - in times at least triple what a normal race would take us. Dean and Richard, both 2:30 marathoners, were averaging around 20 minutes per mile.

We spent the next two nights sleeping in tents about 100 yards fro m the geographic South Pole before returning to Patriot Hills, and another two nights there.

By the time we left the White Continent, our eight-day stay had turned into 19 days. We arrived in Punta Arenas around 1 a.m. and saw darkness for the first time in nearly three weeks.

I didn't do the marathon as planned, but by sacrificing that part of the trip, I helped make the whole expedition a success. I also walked across a mountain ridge in Antarctica, camped out in -40 weather, and ran naked around the South Pole.

Was the adventure what I expected? Nope. It was better.

and the adventure continues ...