Cat Bird Seat
By David Yon
It was the first time I ever had heard of little guys in tuxedos standing along a race course cheering for runners. But sure enough, as the runners crested hill number 200, there they were standing in a line. They turned their heads and watched each runner pass while flapping their wings and hopping from foot to foot as if to say – “you can do it.” The penguins just seemed a natural part of the King George Island welcoming party as we joined 150 or so runners for the 1999 Antarctica Marathon. They provided Mary Jean with a truly novel excuse to add to Rex’s list – “I could have broken 5 hours, but I had to stop and get my picture taken with the penguins.” Our trip to the bottom of the world was far more than just a marathon and we came away with a great appreciation for a land that very few have had the opportunity to visit. We were very fortunate to have an inspired group from Marine Expeditions teaching us about the special character of this land. When the time came to part ways, I understood clearly our expedition leader, Shane Evoy’s, plea that we return as “ambassadors” for this unique land.
Antarctica is often referred to as the last real frontier. It remains “unowned” and undeveloped. While a number of countries maintain research stations on the continent, a multinational treaty provides that no country owns any part of the continent. Its vastness overwhelms you. Enormous glaciers consume the land while huge icebergs float in the sea – both reminders that the extremes of nature dictate nearly everything here. Winter does not end until both the land and the sea are frozen solid. John Muir described the raw power of the glaciers as follows: “To dine with a glacier on a sunny day is a glorious thing and makes feasts of meat and wine ridiculous. The glacier eats hills and drinks sunbeams.”
In contrast to its vastness and perhaps because of its harshness this land is simple. The life forms that inhabit this continent are few but hearty. The albatrosses escort you across the Drake Passage and then give way to Prions, Petrels, Skuas and other birds. Of course, the most notable bird is the penguin, much more at home and graceful in the water than in the air or on the land. They seem to know no fear of people and are quite inquisitive about human visitors. The mammals are limited to two – the whales and the seals. We saw five different types of seals and two types of whales. And all life here and elsewhere in the earth’s oceans depends directly on the phytoplankton and zooplankton in the Southern Ocean that start the food chain. Because of its simplicity, Anarctica acts as an early warning system for problems with the earth’s environment and a great place for scientific research. Unfortunately, vanishing species and penguins with cataracts tell us that there are problems to be concerned about.
The marathon was run on King George Island and began at a research station maintained by Uruguay. The temperature was moderate, probably in the low 30’s, but 30-40 mile an hour winds gave it a real arctic feel. Runners from 19 countries began by running a loop over a field of ankle twisting rocks and boulders, through a glacier feed stream and then up a wind-blown glacier. After carefully navigating across the tops of the rocks and boulders and hopping over the streams, running became walking for nearly everyone on the ascent up the glacier. I joined most of the runners around me in starting this ascent by trying to run. The surface however left you with a bit of a guessing game. One foot strike hit solid ice and kept you right on the surface – but slipping and sliding. The next one however found soft snow and let you sink up to your ankles – stopping you in your tracks. What really kept you guessing though were the times you broke through the ice and into puddles of water. The more you tried to run, the more it seemed like you stayed in the same place or risked falling down. Within a few hundred yards or so, it seemed like most of the runners around me were resorting to a fast walk instead of running. Any extra ground covered by running instead of walking at this point seemed to come at far to great a cost of effort and risk of twisted ankle. The cold head wind added to the misery seemingly grabbing the very air I was trying to breath and whisking it away. Walking seemed the only way to find enough air to breathe.
At the top of the glacier we circled a set of flags and started back down. The first few steps were just as cautious as those going up. But then the competitive nature of the race began to show and the pace picked up. I was probably in about 12- 15 place at this point and those ahead of me were finding a way to run down. Each foot plant was still a mystery but most seemed to gather more speed as they worked down the glacier – ignoring the fact that a mistake on the way down was probably going to hurt much worse than on the way up. I began to find a rhythm that allowed me to call my progress running.
At the bottom of the glacier we crossed the boulder field and ran back through the Uruguayan station and out onto a muddy clay-like road. We left the base at somewhere around the three-mile mark (and probably after 30 minutes or more of running) with the goal being to run out to the “great wall” of China (on the Chinese research station) and then return to the Uruguayan station which was the half way point. There were short steep hills and there were long steep hills on this loop. And there was wind. We ran through or by Russian, Chile, Argentine and Chinese research station. Those running the marathon then did the same loop again. The two loop course also gave runners a great opportunity to “declare” they were running the half at this point. For those who kept going, I can assure you the glacier was longer and the winds stronger the second time through.
There is far more to tell than room to tell it, but suffice it to say that I managed to finish third in my worst marathon time ever of 3:47:55. It was easily the hardest course I have ever run, but the one with the most spectacular scenery and one of the best learning experiences ever. Mary Jean finished 42nd after pausing to play with the penguins. It truly was the “experience of a life time.”