Posts Tagged ‘Antarctica Marathon’

Darling I don’t know why I go to extremes.
– Billy Joel

[Happy birthday, Sandy! To the best sister genetics can buy… even if you do misguidedly tout your climbing addiction over my running fetish.]

Mike Sohaskey "Sohaskey-nicking" after 2013 Portland Marathon


If 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick can kiss his right biceps after scoring a TD, this seems an appropriate way to celebrate a running year like 2013

My 2013 was dramatically different than anything I anticipated at the end of 2012.  From day one the year evolved not so much from one month to the next or one race to the next, as from one extreme to the next.  It was, for example, the first year I’d race nothing shorter than a 25K (15.5 miles).  If you’re interested in numbers, you’ll find them at the end of this post.  But it’s largely by its outlier nature that I’ll remember my 2013 year in running:

Snowiest race ever:  Nestled all snug up next to Canada in the corner of the country, January’s Orcas Island 25K was the archetypal Pacific Northwest trail race, with a generous helping of brumal fury thrown in to keep things interesting.  The race started in cold rain and ascended into colder snowfall before descending to an even soggier finish line.  The pristine whiteness of snow-covered Summit Lake was an unforgettable highlight.  Even without the excellent company of Katie and three wonderful Washington wunning fwiends, this race would have stuck with me as the first time I’d ever raced in snow, falling or otherwise.  Yet despite the wintry conditions, this wouldn’t qualify as my coldest race of the year.  Because that singular distinction belonged to…

Coldest race ever:  Antarctica.  In March, Katie and I – along with nearly 100 other (insert appropriate adjective here) runners – set sail from Ushuaia, Argentina bound for Antarctica.  As you might imagine, this trip was all about extremes:
– The opportunity was extremely unexpected, given that we were plucked off the waiting list at the last minute, three weeks before our flight would depart for Argentina.
– Our fellow travelers were an extremely diverse group, and an amazing cast of some of the most motivated and inspirational characters you could ever hope to meet.  Among them were the former chief of security for Nelson Mandela, and a 14-year-old who went on to become the youngest person to run a marathon on all seven continents.  The trip truly opened my eyes to what it means to be part of the worldwide running community.
– And the continent itself is extremely, well, extreme: unless you’re an astronaut working on the space station, there’s very little in life to prepare you for what awaits on the coldest, highest, darkest, driest and windiest continent on Earth.

As it turned out, race day was less extreme than we’d feared.  In fact, I’d rather run in the conditions we did (temperatures in the low 20s with little wind) than on an average winter day in Buffalo.  Besides, Buffalo is fairly lacking in penguins and glaciers.

My two blog posts on the Antarctica Marathon were picked up by Reddit and Metafilter, and “surreal” is what happens when you find yourself reading comments about your blog posted on another site’s re-blog.  An abridged version of my narrative also appeared last month in the inaugural issue of Marathon Running, an online magazine available as a free subscription in the iTunes Store.  Though I’m clearly biased, I recognize the need for a good interactive running magazine, and I’d recommend Marathon Running based on its eye-catching debut.  Plus it’s free!  Cheap at thrice the price, so I hope you’ll check it out.  I’m eager to see what the publishers have in store for the future.

Metafilter comment


This was my favorite comment on Metafilter re: my blog posts… sorry about that, otter lady!

As it turns out, not everyone was so enthralled by our Antarctica adventure.  Our recent holiday card featured two photos of me and Katie, one under the Antarctica Marathon banner and the other in front of the Hollywood sign.  While visiting my childhood pal and his family back in Texas, their 9-year-old son asked us: “I saw your Christmas card [and here his eyes widened]… did you really go to HOLLYWOOD?”

And one last footnote on the Last Continent: on Thursday all 52 passengers aboard another Russian ship, which had been trapped in ice off the coast of Antarctica since Christmas Eve, were airlifted to safety by a Chinese helicopter.  Most amusing was the ship’s name, which was coincidentally (almost) perfect for a floundering research vessel that found itself relying on Chinese competence: the Akademik Shokalskiy.

Most shocking race moment:  April 15, 2:49pm EDT, Boylston Street, finish line of the Boston Marathon.  Bombs exploded, chaos reigned, lives were lost, lives were saved, runners united, Bostonians rallied and the world rallied around them.  I shared my thoughts the day after and the week after, with the solidarity of runners everywhere on display like never before.

Hottest race ever:  Curiously, my next race after Antarctica would be much closer to home, though no less extreme.  Held in the Cleveland National Forest on the hottest weekend of the year, the Harding Hustle 50K saw 40 runners toe the start line amidst predictions of record high temperatures up and down the West Coast, and the potential for a new planetary high temperature not too far from us in Death Valley.  And the day didn’t disappoint.  As my body struggled to cool itself over the last 20 miles, temperatures reached a reported 107°F on Santiago Peak, the pinnacle of the course.  By the time I shuffled across the finish line over 6-1/2 hours after I’d started, the mercury had plummeted to a relatively temperate 98°F.

And as long as we’re talking extremes: six months earlier, during a training run on that same course, I’d run (literally) into a driving snowstorm that had forced me to retreat back down the mountain.  A snowstorm… in Orange County.  Have you ever felt like you were living in a video game?

Most mature first-time runner:  I met 87-year-old Claire during an otherwise routine training run around the local marina.  She appreciated my form, I appreciated her moxie.  Our five minutes together stands as one of my most endearing memories of 2013.

Darkest race ever:  August saw Katie and I hop in the car and road trip to Las Vegas for the E.T. Full Moon Midnight Marathon.  The race is run (as its name suggests) under the full moon in Rachel, NV, 2-1/2 hours outside Las Vegas in the heart of Area 51.  Although E.T. wouldn’t be my first nighttime race, it would be my longest.  Unfortunately the novelty of moonlit solitude would quickly wear off, as my darkest race ever morphed into my…

Most painful race ever:  Because on an otherwise pleasant (if sensorily underwhelming) evening, I misjudged a cattle guard crossing at mile 17 and felt my left ankle try to unscrew itself from my leg.  But as nauseating as the throbbing in my ankle was, my brain throbbed even worse at the idea of a DNF (Did Not Finish) next to my name.  And so, before common sense could rear its ugly head, I ran nine more painstaking miles to finish in under four hours and earn second place in my age group.  Most importantly, I secured a sweet glow-in-the-dark medal of a stoic alien face that seemed to look at me like, “So? Was I really worth it?”

Running is all about managing fatigue… overcoming mental and physical exhaustion is the name of the game.  But this was the first time I’d ever had to confront acute pain during a race – normally that’s a clear cue to stop running.  And although I’d recommend many things about my 2013, running with the sensation of having a sandbag strapped to one ankle wouldn’t be one of them.  Did I mention the medal glows in the dark?

The take-home lesson from my E.T. experience was that Las Vegas, with its vast human mazes winding circuitously through monolithic casinos, is the absolute worst city in the country to have a sprained ankle.  If you think it’s an obstacle course on two good feet, try navigating it on crutches.  Throw in the relentless electronic mating call of the slot machines, and again it’s like being in a bad video game, minus the extra lives.

Best race ever:  “Best” is a wholly subjective term to be sure, but The North Face Endurance Challenge (TNFEC) Championship Marathon in December was a serious contender.  Certainly it wasn’t the fastest marathon I’ve run – the 4,700 feet of elevation gain and loss saw to that – but it may have been my most consistent and rewarding effort ever from start to finish.  In my first TNFEC marathon (and first TNFEC race since 2009), I managed a sub-10:00/mile performance and third-place age group finish.  I chalk up my successful day to a healthy dose of Karno karma, and to the unbearable lightness of being in the Marin Headlands.

Mike Sohaskey - 2013 race collage

Surprisingly, the only statistic I (still) really care about – my overall race percentile – held steady at 91 this year, as I crossed the finish line 706th out of 7,633 total finishers.  Meaning that once again, after all was said and run, I finished in the top 9% of all losers.  That’s a status quo I’m happy to maintain.

Clearly these races and race moments testify to an unforgettable 2013.  And yet the hands-down highlight of the year would have to be my good fortune in meeting and getting to know so many passionate runners – and excellent people – from across the globe, while continuing to live and run every day in one of the most consistently beautiful places on Earth.  California may get singled out for its high cost of living and heathen mindset, but the rest of the country (to adapt the rant of Colonel Nathan R. Jessup) wants us on that seawall, it needs us on that seawall.  And since moving here 20 years ago, I have yet to run a single mile on a treadmill.

Certainly extreme is in the eye of the beholder, and the potential exists for more extreme opportunities going forward, including longer distances, higher altitudes and faster finish times.  In fact, my first test of 2014 will be one that even many runners would call extreme (or just plain dumb)… but to me it’s simply another new wrinkle in the fabric of a sport that never lacks for compelling challenges.

Like every year, 2014 will feature its fair share of personal goals and running subplots, and I’ll continue to hit them all hard.  But as a disciple of the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) school of running, I’ll always defer to what for me has become Running Strategery 101: Just run.  Sometimes too fast, sometimes too slow, sometimes just right.  On hard pavement, in soft dirt, over the river and through the woods.  No matter if my brain is melting or the rest of me is freezing.  Just run, and the rest will take care of itself.  And if we happen to cross paths on the road or trail, don’t be surprised if you see me smiling.

Looking ahead, my 2014 race schedule at this point resembles an EKG… long stretches of quiet interspersed with abrupt spikes of activity.  The schedule will continue to evolve as new spikes are added.  But for now the BC&H world tour will take us down to the Deep South next week and up the Pacific Coast Highway to Big Sur in the spring, as well as across the country to New York City and across the Atlantic to Berlin.  I’m especially psyched by the prospect of running two world marathon majors in less than two months.  But the most exciting part of my year may well fall in the space between races, and I look forward to sharing all the details of our new project when the time comes.

So stay tuned!  Hopefully you’ll continue to follow along… after all, more than a few BC&H readers set personal records in 2013, and I can’t help but think that’s not coincidence.  And for you non-running types, you never know – I may just convince you that a 30-mile run up and down hills really is the best possible way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

And so, with apologies to Billy Joel, actually I do know why I go to extremes – because they’re sure not coming to me.

Hope you hit all your goals in 2014!

Mike Sohaskey running at sunset along beach

FINAL STATS of 2013:
2,326 miles run in 235 days (9.9 miles/day average)
17 days lost to injury (sore psoas muscle after the Orcas Island 25K; sprained ankle at the E.T. Full Moon Midnight Marathon)
157.6 miles raced (including the Women’s Health RUN 10 FEED 10 L.A. fun run in September)
6 races (one 50K, four marathons, one 25K) in four states (CA, NV, OR, WA) and on two continents (North America, Antarctica)
Overall race percentile: 91 (same as 2012!) = 706/7,633 total finishers
3 age-group podium finishes (1/10 at the Antarctica Marathon; 2/20 at the E.T. Full Moon Midnight Marathon; 3/13 at The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship Marathon)
Fastest race pace: 8:02/mile (Portland Marathon)
Slowest race pace: 12:30/mile (Harding Hustle 50K)
20 blog posts written

Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Paul Butler is to marathons what Ryan Seacrest is to hair — not one out of place.

I met Paul and his wife Sharon on our recent Antarctica Marathon adventure.  Actually, I met a lot of people on our trip, a dizzying array of endurance types with remarkable racing résumés.  Some older runners had completed over 100, over 200, over 300 marathons in their lifetimes, while several less veteran runners were clearly headed down that same path.  As the temperamental ocean swirled around us, so too did stories of marathoning exploits that circled the globe, in some cases more than once.  These were restless minds and bodies forever in search of The Next Big Challenge.

So why, on a ship full of hyperaccomplished running juggernauts, did my focus gravitate to Paul Butler?  After all, Paul — a 61-year-old dentist from Center City, Philadelphia — had run “only” 56 marathons prior to boarding the Akademik Sergey Vavilov bound for Antarctica.  Compared to some of his fellow passengers, whose medal collections could be melted down to build a life-size Optimus Prime, Butler’s own collection of race bling is relatively modest and could reasonably hang from both sides of one sturdy doorknob (my preferred method of showcasing medals).

Speaking of juggernauts…

No, it wasn’t necessarily the quantity of his marathons that attracted my attention; it was their quality.  Because Paul may be, without exaggeration, the most efficient marathoner in the history of the sport.  His pre-Antarctica total of 56 marathons incorporated all 50 states plus Washington D.C., as well as six different continents.  He’s never run two marathons in the same state nor — aside from North America — on the same continent.  He’s run his hometown Philadelphia Marathon only once (although he has competed at shorter distances in the city).  Unlike the rest of us, he doesn’t choose a marathon based on what his friends are running, or its proximity to his home, or because he’s easy prey for modern-day race organizers who promise a one-of-a-kind finisher’s medal to anyone who completes all three races within a series.

So it was that on the morning of March 30, only 26.2 miles in Antarctica stood between Paul and a résumé that would make even the most dehydrated marathoner salivate: membership in both the 50 States Marathon Club and the Seven Continents Club, as well as one of the more compelling personal stories in a sport rife with fascinating characters and amazing accomplishments.  Antarctica would appropriately serve as the coup de grâce to his marathoning career.

At least, that was the plan.  But as we all quickly learned on the Last Continent, sometimes the best-laid plans of ice and men…

Paul’s own best-laid plans went awry at mile 20 when, with 6.2 miles to go in a 15-year journey, his Antarctica Marathon came to a premature end.  And four days later, on the Vavilov’s stomach-churning return voyage across the Drake Passage, as most passengers struggled with the concept of “upright,” I seized the opportunity to chat with him in the ship’s library, to learn more about his meticulously executed racing past, his unexpectedly bittersweet present, and his uncertain post-Antarctica future.  I’ll let him fill in the details.

Paul&Sharon_Vavilov

Paul and Sharon Butler, aboard the Akademik Sergey Vavilov

(The following conversation took place on April 3, 2013; the original transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity)

Mike S:  What motivated you to start running in the first place?
Paul B:  I was a runner in elementary school, in the 5th and 6th grade, and then I gave it up until I was in the Army, in Germany.  I was married with three children, and I wanted to get myself into shape and be job-worthy before I came back home to the States and looked for a job.  So my wife Sharon and I started jogging around the American base in Germany.  We both lost about 40 pounds and got back in 1980 in great shape.

MS:  So you came back from Germany and settled down in Philadelphia?
PB:  Yes.  And then sort of forgot about running until my youngest son was going to be bar mitzhvahed.  In our congregation, you then do something charitable.  I got something in the mail from the Leukemia Society — you raise money, and they’ll pay your way to a marathon.  So I chose the inaugural Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in San Diego in June 1998.

We sent out letters to raise money, and our whole family went — the six of us, Sharon and I and our four children.  I think we raised about four or five thousand dollars for the Leukemia Society.

That got me hooked, to do a marathon.  And I was disappointed – I think I did it in 5 hours 45 minutes.  I expected to finish, but I developed blisters.  So then after that was over, and I was disappointed in my time, I said “I’m going to try this again somewhere.  Hey, there’s one in Las Vegas, let’s go to Las Vegas.”  And I actually finished that in under 5 hours, like 4 hours and 59 minutes.  I really ran hard at the end and all my muscles spasmed, and Sharon had to take me back to the hotel room in a wheelchair.  That’s how horrible it was.

So then I decided, I like doing all this stuff but I’m not going to kill myself anymore, I’m just going to finish.  I had 3,600 frequent flyer miles built up from my credit card, and I took all six of us to Vermont.  And I ran pretty good, just missed five hours by under a minute.

And we said, let’s go to some different places, doing these marathon things.  When I got to about eight or nine, I saw something about the 50 States Marathon Club.  That got me really motivated, and I ran over 40 marathons between 2002 and 2009.  Sometimes I did 12 a year, and one time I ran two marathons on consecutive weekends.

So that’s what I did — I decided just to finish, not to hurt myself, not to worry about whether I finished in five hours or seven hours.  And I just kept doing them.

San Diego, 1998: the race that began a 15-year marathoning journey

MS:  And always used your running as a reason to travel with the family and visit another state?
PB:  Well, the kids went with us to Vermont and then to Alaska — the Mayor’s Midnight Sun Marathon in Anchorage in June.  We made it a family vacation where we did the marathon first and then flew up to Barrow, took the train down to Fairbanks, and did the whole thing for a couple weeks.  It was great.

The trick was planning everything, because I only did one marathon in every state.  My last one was supposed to be in Atlantic City.  So my whole family, all my friends came out… and that year they canceled the race last minute because they didn’t have a sponsor.  Luckily for me there was another race that weekend, the Asbury Park New Jersey [Relay] Marathon.  I’d never been to Asbury Park, so that was a new place to see, and it was their inaugural run.

But the bad news was, there was a nor’easter that weekend — it was 40 degrees, the wind was sort of like this [indicates the lurching ship], and it was raining heavily I’d say 90% of the time.  It was a horrible day to do a marathon.  I wouldn’t want friends and family to come out in that weather, but a lot of them did.  So a lot of my family was able to see me finish, but the odd thing was… less than a minute before I crossed the finish line, two of my kids were swinging my oldest grandson back and forth and dislocated his shoulder.  So when I crossed the finish line hardly anybody was there, they were all worried about him.  Luckily, a family member who’s a physician was able to reset my grandson’s arm, so everything was ok.

After that, I didn’t think about running marathons anymore until February or March 2010.  I had built up a ton of frequent flyer miles to run all these places in the states, and I discovered you could fly from Philadelphia to Dublin for 20,000 miles.  That was a really good bargain, since it was in October during low season.  And the weekend I picked out, the Dublin Marathon was that weekend.

Even M.C. Escher would have been impressed by how Paul made all the pieces fit

MS:  So you hadn’t thought about running the continents?
PB:  No, not until that point.  And I said well, I can do a marathon in Dublin.  On the 50 States Marathon Club website, under “Membership” it has “Conquering the Continents.”  I saw that not many people had done all the states and all the continents, and I said wow, that’d be a pretty neat thing to be one of those people.

We can’t take too much time off work, so we did several of the international races as a four-day trip — leaving on a Thursday night, arriving on Friday, sightseeing on Saturday, marathon the next morning and then leave that night.  We did the same thing with Marathon Tours for their inaugural marathon in the Outback in Ayers Rock, Australia.  That one had an eight-hour finishing time — that’s my kind of marathon, I always try to get the slowest.  Dublin was also eight hours.  So I signed up for that [Ayers Rock] and it worked out great, it was a nice marathon.

And then Phuket in Thailand — I did that in 2011, and that was the worst race ever, ever, ever.  I wear orthotic inserts all day when I work and during races too, and they’d never bothered me before.  But in Phuket, it was so hot and humid that I developed horrible blisters, and the orthotics kept irritating the blisters.  I didn’t really know what was going on the whole race, until I got home and saw what had happened… I kept thinking there were stones in there or something.  But I had blisters — I peeled the whole thing off the back of my foot, from the bottom of my foot, both feet.

The bottom line was that after about 5 miles, I was limping… and I limped the whole way, 26.2 miles.  But I finished, and that was my slowest finish time, like 7 hours 15 minutes.  I crossed the finish line, and I was like the last one to finish.  I knew I wasn’t going back there to do it again — I had to do it.  So that was gratifying, the fact that I did it.

Then I ran Mt. Kilimanjaro the following February, Easter Island in June, and the Marine Corps Marathon [in Washington D.C.] was in there at some point.  And I was done last June, after Easter Island.

I signed up for Antarctica probably three years ago.  I was signed up for 2014, and Thom [Gilligan, President/Founder of Marathon Tours and Antarctica Marathon race director] called me a year and a half ago to ask, “Do you want to move up a year?”  Believe it or not, I trained harder for this race than I did any other race because I knew it was going to be more difficult.  I like to run on a treadmill, and that was probably my downfall — even though I would run 15, 16 miles and elevate it every once in a while to get used to hills, it just wasn’t like this.  You can’t duplicate this on a treadmill. [laughs]  So that was probably my downfall.  This was supposed to be 57 and done, and… now it isn’t.  But I did get a half marathon medal, I did 20 miles, I just… I would never come back here, I would never do this again.

Paul (wearing bib #20) greets the camera during the Antarctica Marathon (photo credit Anita Allen)

MS:  There are companies that fly into Antarctica, race immediately and fly out again.  Would you ever think about doing that?
PB:  I probably would… because it’s going to gnaw at me for a while, that I didn’t finish it.  I can’t help it — no matter what anybody says to me, it’s going to bother me.  Even though it’s the same medal, and it’s going to be up on my wall, it doesn’t mean the same in my heart.  I know there are two other races that fly in here, so I would definitely do that.  But we can’t really afford to do it this way [by ship] again.  Our house needs to be painted, the bathroom needs to be redone, and we put that off so I could do this.  Who knows, I’m only 61, there are a lot of guys here older than me who finished a marathon, so… I’ll see.

MS:  So then what’s next?  Will you keep running, maybe start over?
PB:  Well, I’m going to still run, but I have no marathons planned.  I signed up for the Broad Street Run in May — Philadelphia has a Broad Street 10-mile run which is the best, most successful and most popular 10-miler.  They have like 40,000 runners, and it’s a lottery like the New York City Marathon.  It’s a nice easy run, and I’ll do that.  And then I’ll see.  I’ll look into… I know I’m not going to not look at the website for those two other [Antarctica] marathons.  But I have to find out, is there a time limit on that one?  I don’t want to go there and get yanked off the course in 6 hours 15 minutes if they’re only giving you six hours.

I’ve been emailing my daughter, who’s a professional trainer.  She’s done a couple marathons with me in Hawaii and Florida, and she was a professional basketball player.  When she was in high school, in the state semifinal game, her team was behind by two, and as the point guard she was dribbling down court for the tying or winning basket with five seconds left.  She was dribbling down, and the ball dribbled off her knee, went out of bounds, and that was the end of her high school career.  She said, “Dad, that haunts me all the time.”  Not every day — she has three boys of her own now, she’s got a nice life, great husband, but every once in a while she thinks about that ball dribbling off her foot, just like I’m going to think about me stopping at the 20-mile mark and not finishing this race.  She says things happen: “You know, whatever caused you not to have the energy to go on, it happened.  Just like I dribbled off my foot, I can’t go back to change it.”  Like the guy who makes the last out in the World Series, you know, or the guy who drops a perfect pass in football.

MS:  So you decided to stop the Antarctica race yourself, you said?
PB:  Yes, it was my choice.  I guess I looked ok, and Thom said “Paul, I’m stopping all the runners after you, and we’re going to monitor you.”  I was on that harder loop [out to the Uruguayan base and back] at the 20-mile mark, and I saw a hill.  At the 20-mile marker there was a big dip right there, and I had already fallen twice, I’d really hurt myself [indicates his wrist].

I said to myself, I’m going to fall if I try to go over that hill, and I’m never going to get back up to go the other way.  And there were still hills beyond that.  I just felt that I was going to hurt myself.  I’d already fallen twice, and I didn’t want to really cause any problem for me or anybody else getting me out of there.  I just didn’t feel confident… I lost my confidence.  Because I wasn’t out of breath, I just didn’t have the inner strength.

MS:  So… you mentioned Phuket, but would this qualify as your most challenging race?
PB:  The course in Phuket wasn’t crazy hard, it was just the feet that got me in trouble there.  I never professed to be a great marathon runner, but this is the first I had to drop out of.  I always finished every race — even if I had to walk it, I always had that strength to finish.  This one just… like I said, I trained for this one more than any other marathon, and I didn’t take it seriously enough, even at that point when Thom sent that email about “You’d better train for the hills.”  The ice and the hills just got to me.

For 18 runners, crossing the finish line in Antarctica secured their place in the Seven Continents Club

MS:  Do you have a most memorable race?
PB:  I like Vermont because it was a tough course that I finished pretty well, for me — a little over five hours.  Actually, that was a beautiful course.  Marine Corps I liked also because I did a pretty good time on that, and once you do that, you feel like you’re a real Marine, you know? [laughs]  Every race I felt really good about because I’m not a super athlete.  I’m sure I’m 20 pounds overweight.  In my mind it’s hard to even walk a marathon, and I usually would run more than half of it, then run and walk the rest of the way.

But I always felt that I was able to pick my races.  I couldn’t pick this one, this was it — this was the one, I couldn’t change it.  I always thought I could do what I had to do with this one.  Because I talked to a few people who had done it, and they said “Thom will let you finish as long as he sees you’re going at a good pace.”  And he did… he was going to allow me to finish.  I made the choice to stop.  And that’s not like me.

Bob [a fellow runner] picked me up when I fell.  He saw me go down the second time, and I didn’t get up right away. I wasn’t knocked out, but I was like in shock, like where am I?  He yanked me up and asked me if I was ok, and I said yeah I’m fine, and I kept on going at that point.

MS:  What’s been your favorite destination, not necessarily for the race itself, just a place you visited?

PB:  Actually, believe it or not, Mount Rushmore.  There’s actually two marathons there, Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse [MS note: the Mt. Rushmore Marathon was discontinued after 2008].  I chose the Crazy Horse Marathon because it’s more downhill.  If I can go fast on the first half — I usually walk a lot of the second half — I’ll finish in a good amount of time.  I love that course, and Sharon loved to see Mt. Rushmore.

These races have given us chances to see the whole country.  When we went to do the Lake Okoboji Marathon in Iowa, we took a three-hour side trip and saw the Field of Dreams, from the movie.  Every time we went somewhere we tried to see an attraction.  Even if we had to drive a long distance it was worth it, because you never know when you’re going to go back to these places.

MS:  What’s your PR?
PB:  It’s like 4:59:02 I think, something like that.  That was in Las Vegas.  I figure there’s no way I’m ever going to get under four hours, so that’s fine for me.

MS:  Have you run any trail races, or do you stick to roads?
PB:  No, I don’t do any… in fact, I would consider this a trail race, I think it should be advertised as a trail race.  Whether it’s muddy or icy, it’s still a trail race.

This definitely has the look of a trail race (photo credit Anita Allen)

MS:  Do you run any other distances?
PB:  I’ve done the Broad Street Run many times, the 10-mile one, and I do a few half marathons in Philadelphia.  But not much lately.  I really just tried to do marathons, and now it’s a new part of my life, so I haven’t really figured out what I’m going to do next.

MS:  Do you do any other sports besides running?
PB:  I played basketball with an adult league for ten years.  When I decided to do this running thing I gave it up, because in this league guys like you – younger guys – would come in and play, and they would play for real real.  I was scared I was going to get hurt… so I decided just to make sure if I was going to hurt, I was going to hurt myself [running].  So I might try that, I might go back and do the basketball thing.

MS:  Have you sustained any injuries through all of this?
PB:  Yes, this happened about two months ago — I switched shoes, I didn’t do it right away, but I did a 15-mile run, and after the run this big toe got totally black.  I had to go to this podiatrist who saved me many times in my running career.  He gave me some shot and had to slice between the nail and the thing, and the thing bled out.  I was able to still run, and it finally eased up, but that sidelined me for a couple weeks about eight weeks ago.  So that’s the worst of my injuries.

MS:  Wow, so no shin splints, no stress fractures, no tendinitis, no plantar fasciitis, nothing too serious?
PB:  I did… in 2001 I had a problem with plantar fasciitis, and I didn’t run for about a year.  I must have bought three or four different gadgets to try to cure that, and the orthotics finally helped.  That was all my injuries.  It wasn’t all easy, but I never had knee problems, I never had shin splints, never really had hip problems.

Yeah, I was pretty fortunate.  And I always say to myself that if I could lose 20 pounds and keep it off forever, I probably would’ve been a really good runner.  Because I had no knee injuries, no problems — but I didn’t have the self-control, I enjoy eating too much.  I’m a vegan, but I eat a lot of that too.

MS:  If you were to start on day one and do this all over again, would you do it the same way?  Would you do anything differently?
PB:  For my whole running career?

MS:  Yes, from San Diego, 1998.
PB:  No, it was such a great run.  I spent so many hours planning to make sure I could get all the states at a certain time to finish up Saturday [in Antarctica].  It was all planned out, and it took so much effort — enjoyable effort.  It was a good part of my life, 15 years.  And who knows what the future’s going to bring.  I swore to everybody this was going to be my last marathon… I said “This is it, I’m not doing anymore.”  It takes up a lot of time; I wake up at 4:00 in the morning on the treadmill, I’m running two hours before I go to work, and then I’m falling asleep at 7:00 at night.  I know if I were to say to Sharon right now, “Let’s not paint the house, let’s not fix this,” then she would go with me, she would do this again… she would.  But it’s not fair.  She’s given up enough at this point, and she was at every finish line, every finish line.

Reunited at the finish: while Paul raced, Sharon provided support as a volunteer (photo credit Anita Allen)

MS:  As far as advice for other runners who look at you and say, “Wow, 56 marathons, I couldn’t even run one,” or really anybody who’s looking at some kind of daunting challenge, would you have any guidance for them?
PB:  Yes, I would.  I think anybody could do it, could do what I did.  I don’t consider myself a great athlete.  But I bought this book called The Non-Runner’s Marathon Trainer, written by two professors from the University of Northern Iowa who taught a course about training for a marathon as part of their college curriculum.  It was a 16-week course, and they gave you eating advice and training advice so that any non-athlete could get through a marathon.  So I read and followed the training guidelines in that book for the first three or four marathons.  And it worked.  So anybody who’s not a real athlete, buy that book.

MS:  Is there any other race that you really want to run, that you have in mind?
PB:  No, there’s a whole bunch of stuff that’s going on in my life right now.  But I’ll be thinking about Antarctica… definitely that’s going to be on my mind, and who knows what’s going to happen.

A ship in harbour is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.
– William Shedd

Continued from Act 1:

The 14th Antarctica Marathon (Saturday, March 30)
Race morning arrived in the usual manner, with Andrew’s comforting voice reminding us over the Vavilov‘s PA that it was time to run a marathon on the coldest, highest, driest, darkest and windiest continent on Earth.  Hooray!  Fortunately the day promised to be optimal (in the Antarctica sense of the word), with temperatures hovering around a balmy -5°C (23°F).  More importantly though, wind speed was a near-negligible 12 knots (14 mph), assuaging my concerns that I’d be stumbling 13.1 miles through an unforgiving headwind (and the other 13.1 with a brisk tailwind).

I inventoried my gear one last time.  All race-day nutrients – energy bars, gels, etc. – had to be removed from their original packaging and all paper wrappers left on the ship, in accordance with the 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty.  This wasn’t a problem, since for convenience sake I always liquify my race-day nutrition in my water bottle.  Per Thom’s instructions I’d prepared two such bottles, which I planned to leave at the start/finish area.

In a dining hall alive with the clatter of breakfast dishes and the buzz of pre-race jitters, I waited as long as possible to eat my usual stomach-sanctioned meal of granola and peanut butter, which I’d brought with me from California.  Several steps stood between us and the starting gun – the donning of the tomato-red Wet Skins that would keep us warm and dry, the loading of the zodiacs, the short ride to King George Island, the process of funneling everyone from zodiac to start line – and with 4+ hours of running ahead of me, I wanted to maximize the nutritional payback of my carefully choreographed breakfast.

blue iceberg

The first zodiacs launched at 7:15am, with 12 passengers per zodiac.  After a short 5-minute ride under gray skies and across smooth water, we beached near Bellingshausen Station and stepped ashore for the first time in 3½ days.  Two Gentoo penguins splished and splashed in the water nearby.  Stepping out of my Wet Suit, I could still feel the ground swaying underfoot as I tried to coax out my land legs.  Moreover, the residual effects of the Transderm patch that I’d removed 36 hours earlier continued to wreak havoc on my short-range vision.  Discomforting as my still-dilated pupils were, I was confident they wouldn’t upset my ability to run in a straight line for several hours.

How does a warm-weather Californian train for a marathon in Antarctica?  Much as I hate to divulge trade secrets, here it is: I bought stuff.  More specifically, windproof stuff.  Compared to my typical all-season California running attire, I felt like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man in my three upper-body layers (REI wool base layer, synthetic Under Armour mid-layer, Columbia wind- and waterproof outer jacket) and two lower-body layers (REI fleece-lined tights, Pearl Izumi lightweight running pants), plus balaclava that I was hoping to shed early in the race.

Talk about happy feet… Rich’s own have carried him through over 300 marathons

Katie – who as a spectator would be doubling as a volunteer – was even more polar-ready, given that she’d be standing around for an indeterminate amount of time.  She wisely wore her Wet Suit and rubber boots at all times, together with her Arctic Parka from The North Face that was so down-filled and poofy, I entertained the thought of hanging bricks from her sleeves so she wouldn’t blow away.

As Thom announced two minutes to start, the One Ocean crew hurriedly set up plastic buckets lined with green trash bags to serve as makeshift latrines.  Fortunately I’d been able to attend to my most pressing needs on the ship, and after a lightning-quick stop at the latrine I jogged to the start line.  For many of the bundled-up runners gathered beneath it, the unassuming white canvas banner represented the culmination of a lifetime of marathon-inspired blood, sweat and tears (with more to come).  For others of us, this would be continent #2.  And for two runners, this would be their first marathon on any continent.

This is how I envision an Antarctica Walmart on Black Friday (footage courtesy of Anita Allen of Marathon Tours):

Regardless of what road you’d taken to get there, Thom’s starting-gun cry of “GO!” triggered a collective release of whole-body tension, as the slow-moving stampede of runners – including members of the Russian and Uruguayan bases – followed the leaders along the dirt and up the initial ascent.  And almost immediately, I dismissed all thoughts of a sub-4:00 finish.  The first mile (which, given the course layout, we would be running six times) was an absolute mess.  This was trail running at its damnedest.  The deep, hardened ruts carved by the Bellingshausen ATVs, combined with the sporadic patches of ice, brought to mind the frozen-over ribcage of a recently excavated T. Rex.

Footing in places was unpredictable at best.  Trail running typically demands that your eyes constantly scan the ground two steps ahead for your next foothold.  But on King George Island, it also became necessary to anticipate several steps beyond that, as the course at several points became an exercise in “Choose Your Own Adventure”: foot-deep powdered snow to your left, slushy ice straight ahead or a seemingly frozen-over stretch to your right.  The demand for constant vigilance gradually took a mental and physical toll and led to lapses in attention, resulting in either (best-case scenario) choosing the more difficult and treacherous route, or (worst-case scenario) a hard and jarring fall on slick rocky terrain.

Mike Sohaskey running Antarctica Marathon 2013

Just a boy and his balaclava, out for a springtime jog

And fall people did: this edition of the Antarctica Marathon might appropriately have been subtitled “There Will Be Blood”.  Many runners fell multiple times, sustaining scrapes and bruises of varying severity.  Two women broke their falls with their faces, yet soldiered on with impressive battle wounds that testified to their toughness.  And post-race rumors circulated that one runner had even suffered broken ribs (yes, plural).  I was among the fortunate few to speak of “fall” rather than “falls” – I got too aggressive and lost my footing during my second loop of that first out-and-back, landing on my backside and bouncing right back up again.  No blood, no foul.  But in homage to March Madness going on back in the states, I adopted a mantra of “survive and advance” that served me well at all remaining icy stretches.

Although the prevailing concern had been shoe-sucking stretches of gooey mud, as it turned out postponing the trip until late March (i.e. closer to winter) meant that most of the would-be muddy bits were now iced over.  Every once in a while I’d hit a slushy patch and submerge my foot, though fortunately wet feet never became a concern.  I think by mile 4, most runners – myself included – gladly would have swapped the ice we had for the mud we didn’t.

Whether it was due to the half-week spent on the ship, or my racing in lower-body layers for the first time ever, I could quickly tell that on this day my legs wouldn’t be their trail-running best.  Fortunately I wouldn’t need them to be – this wasn’t the Chicago Marathon, and the only PR to come out of this day would be Thom’s post-race press release.  I’d run (and specifically trained) on tired legs many times before… the question wasn’t whether I’d finish, it was whether I’d do so before the other 40-something-year-old males on the course.

Alan&Inez

(Top) Overall winner Alan Nawoj leads the way up another icy hill (photo credit Anita Allen);
(Bottom) Third-place finisher & women’s champ Inez Haagen appropriately sports bib #1

Whereas the first 4+ mile stretch out to the Uruguayan base and back was fairly brutal (though with a striking glacier view to distract the mind), the second out-and-back was much more manageable.  After a mile or so of smooth footing on dirt, a series of undulating hills led past the Chilean base and out to the second turnaround near the Chinese base, where yoga guru Liz sat waiting to cheer us on.  Her enthusiasm was a welcome pick-me-up.

With one iteration of the course under my belt, I shed my balaclava and passed through the start/finish area to a chorus of cheers from the most amazing volunteer contingent on the continent.  And as soon as I began my second ascent of that first nasty hill, the assorted aches and pains that had nagged me throughout the first nine miles faded – the lifelessness in my legs, the tightness in my left adductor, the overstretching of my arch that comes and goes in my Merrell Mix Masters.  Even the Patch-induced fog around my head lifted… maybe I’d succeeded in sweating out the residual scopolamine.  In any case, it all vanished.  And finally I was back to doing what I do – I was running.  On rugged trails, and up and down hills.  In one of the most mythical and breathtaking places on the planet.  Life was good.

Gentoo-men, start your engines!  Footage with narration by Martin Evans on the marathon course (thanks, Martin!):

Not that I was running every step with my arms raised and fists pumped.  To be sure, I was enjoying and appreciating the scenery of the course, stopping briefly to breathe in the views and snap a few photos along the first two out-and-backs.  But other runners did a much better job of flipping their switch to carpe diem mode.  Luckily the course layout was motivating for the frequent opportunities it afforded me to see my fellow runners.  Because everyone seemed to be having (cue Dirty Dancing soundtrack) the time of their lives – even the lead runners greeted passing runners with a smile and a wave.  Although in passing, I did overhear one of several marathoners with a cold-weather Canadian pedigree admit, “I wish I could fast-forward the next three hours.”

Some fatigued runners inevitably narrowed their focus later in the race to conserve energy; after the 17-mile mark, for example, I acknowledged and encouraged everyone I passed with the same silent thumbs-up.  But a surprising number of runners I passed during my final out-and-backs still looked like kids riding a roller coaster for the first time – eyes wide, arms raised, huge grins seemingly painted Joker-style across their faces (Why so serious?, their body language seemed to ask).  I admired and respected their live-in-the-moment mindset, in part because I couldn’t relate to it.  The faster I run a race the more I enjoy it, with few exceptions (I can’t think of one right now).  My overall enjoyment of a race is, in large part, a function of how long it takes me to get to the finish line.  I realize expectations change, often in ways we can’t predict, and I know it won’t always be this way… but for now it is.  I can live with that.

We interrupt this running program for some polar humor

Regardless of continent, no trail race would feel official without my taking a wrong turn.  Despite Thom’s clear warnings to stay watchful for arrow signs and not blindly follow the person ahead of us, I unwittingly slipped into auto-pilot mode during mile 14 and blindly followed the person ahead of me.  Ginger, who had recently passed me and was running a strong race, blew by the Chilean airstrip and had almost reached the base itself before realizing that neither the Chilean airstrip nor that large red building on her left was part of the course.  I’d just reached the airstrip when she turned to look over her shoulder, and I gestured in sweeping windmill-type motions for her to turn around.  Fortunately she did, and as I reversed course I saw yet another runner on auto-pilot heading our way.  Retracing my steps to the suspect turn, I continued on my way and within minutes was passed by Ginger again, this time for good.

And that’s how I turned this into my own personal 26.5-mile Antarctica Ultramarathon.  And yes, there was a runner named Ginger on Gilligan’s ship, as well as at least one (assistant) professor.

By my third time around the course the temperature had begun to drop, and the icy uphill stretches along miles 18 and 19 had refrozen and become even trickier to negotiate.  This third out-and-back to the Uruguayan base was the low point of my race, as reflected by the uninspired 13:07 it took me to complete mile 19.  Did you run in Crocs?, I could hear the peanut gallery back home asking.

Official "aid station" for Antarctica Marathon 2013

The official Last Marathon aid station

Once I passed through the start/finish area for the final time and approached mile 22, I could see – check that, feel – the light at the end of this tunnel.  As the course approached its final uphill at mile 24.5, I was able to push the pace enough to pass two runners (was he in my age group?) who looked – as I had felt 5 miles earlier – to be running out of gas.  Surging down the final stretch past the Russian base, I felt that unmistakable sensation of “This is why I run” wash over me as Katie and her fantastic fellow supporters cheered me across the finish line in a time of 4:29:50.

The raw, electric thrill of accomplishment overwhelmed me as I embraced Katie and then my fellow Mike from California, with whom I’d trained in Buenos Aires and who had run an inspired race, finishing fifth overall in a time of 4:20:26.  One of the younger volunteers handed me a medal still folded up in its plastic bag, which was perfectly fine with me – by that point he could have handed me a lump of frozen penguin guano and I would have thanked him giddily.

Mike Sohaskey finishing Antarctica Marathon 2013

Lookin’ for someone to hug after just missing a Boston qualifier by a mere 1:14:50

After hanging around the finish area to bask in the moment, take a few photos and cheer across the next two finishers, Thom encouraged me to change out of my wet running gear and into dry clothes.  And as soon as I pulled on a dry base layer, I could feel my body temperature start to drop.  My shiver reflex kicked in, and the feeling drained from my fingers and toes as I hurried to don my cold-weather gear.  Ewan of the One Ocean crew sprang into action, jamming hand warmers into my gloves, zipping me into my parka and Wet Suit (since my fingers had lost all dexterity), and directing Katie and me to a waiting zodiac.  As I’d later learn, Thom and the One Ocean staff were carefully monitoring all finishers after marathon winner Alan and runner-up Billy each ended up in the Russian medical tent with hypothermia.

Whether it was the warm glow of accomplishment, or more likely the dry clothes and hand warmers, by the time the zodiac reached the ship my body temperature had self-regulated.  Maybe, as I’ve referenced before, I really am chasing the endorphin dragon.  But if I could just bottle the pride and elation that gripped me as I crossed that finish line….

Instead, I settled for five blissful minutes in the Vavilov sauna, followed by a hot shower that, if it didn’t quite bring me back to life, at least made me feel a lot less undead.

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho at finish line of Antarctica Marathon 2013

Admittedly I was too euphoric to check, but I’m pretty sure that’s Katie inside that Antarctic sumo suit
(photo credit Anita Allen)

The Vavilov continued its spiritual rebirth as more and more runners returned with stories to tell, memories to share, and wounds to heal.  Some of these wounds would be psychological, as with the dozen or so runners who found themselves unable to complete the marathon and were credited with the half marathon instead.  And 78-year-old Wes, appropriately fearful of falling, walked off the course for the first time in his 201 marathons.  Runners – particularly runners willing to travel to the end of the earth – are understandably a proud bunch, but hopefully all bruised egos, like their physical counterparts, will heal with time.

When the dust settled, 60 of the 72 runners who started the marathon, finished.  This may sound harsh or arrogant, though that’s not my intent – but the truth is, there’s a lot to be said for a race that not everyone finishes.  Inextricably wrapped up in its unsurpassed beauty is the harsh reality that Antarctica is a brutal, unforgiving backdrop for any activity, much less a marathon.  You can admire and respect it from afar, you can agree to its singular demands, you can formulate the best-laid plan to overcome it.  But at the end of the day you don’t choose this race, it chooses you.

Joao’s prediction had been correct, of course; with the race in our stern-view mirror, the mood aboard the Vavilov lightened considerably.  But the revival wouldn’t be immediate, and the bar/lounge would masquerade as a quiet zone for one more evening while the rest of the ship surrendered itself to the inexorable force of post-marathon exhaustion.

Antarctica Marathon 2013 course elevation profile

Even without the icy patches, the undulating course would have left a lasting impression

To the victors go the handshakes: BBQ and awards ceremony (Sunday, March 31)
Official results weren’t immediately posted, so as Sunday afternoon rolled around I wasn’t sure where I’d finished overall or whether I’d placed in my age group.  I knew the top five finishers, but beyond that I was in the dark as to who finished where, much less how old anyone was.  I knew that Winter, who’d finished shortly after me, was 14 years old, but that was pretty much the extent of what I knew.

So I was looking forward to the world’s frostiest BBQ and awards ceremony that afternoon on the ship’s third deck.  The food choices – who can say no to macaroni and cheese? – were excellent, the drinks were on ice (seriously, they were on ice), and after lunch had been served Thom stepped to the microphone to present the awards.  Rather than having a prepared list of winners, he seemed to collate the overall results in his head on the fly, and there were long pauses – and the occasional incorrect winner announced – as he arranged each set of age group winners in his head before making the call.  Standing on that deck, I was glad I’d invested in a kick-ass parka.  Thanks, Patagonia.

Mike Sohaskey, winner of M(40-49) division for Antarctica Marathon 2013

Thom (center) congratulates me and Maarten Vroom (great running surname!) on winning the men’s 40-49 division

Alan Nawoj (33) from Boston was the overall marathon winner in an astonishing time of 3:29:56.  Billy Nel (27) from Australia finished second with his own crazy-fast time of 3:37:48.  And Inez Haagen (49) from the Netherlands, the first women’s finisher who has now won five marathons on five continents, rounded out the sub-4:00 finishers (and won the “non-hypothermic finishers” subdivision) with an impressive 3:41:52.  Amazingly, Inez accomplished this mind-boggling feat at age 49, a number I had to read three or four times on the overall results page and which I still don’t actually believe.  Among the runners, I particularly enjoyed watching her and Alan as we passed along the course – each has a smooth, flowing stride that even gravel-strewn patches of black ice couldn’t suppress.

Winter ran a strong race of her own, crossing the finish line in 4:49:45 and seizing the title of youngest runner to complete a marathon on the White Continent.  As such, she remains on track to conquer her larger goal of becoming the youngest runner to finish a marathon on all seven continents before she turns 15 next year.  And more importantly, she’ll raise a whole lot of money for prostate cancer research while doing it.

Despite finishing a solid hour (actually 00:59:54) behind Alan, I managed to win the men’s 40-49 age group in 4:29:50.  In fact, all three Mikes on the roster – me, Mike Hess (34) and Mike Ahrens (62) – won our age group.  ‘Tis a powerful and athletic name, that one.  As their name was called, each winner stepped to the front to receive their award: a handshake from and photo op with Thom.  This was, needless to say, the source of some playfully snide commentary from several age group winners, who’d clearly been hoping for something more, well, medal-y.

Thom with the top 3 women finishers: (left to right) Ginger, Winter and Inez

The awards ceremony culminated with the presentation of Seven Continents Club medals to those 18 marathoners and half-marathoners for whom Antarctica had been their 7th racing continent.  That was, fittingly, one proud and beaming group.  Like the Antarctica Marathon itself, the Seven Continents Club was Thom’s brainchild.  As a runner I’d known of the Club for some time, but only recently did I become truly cognizant of its existence.  My own motivation for wanting to race in Antarctica was my twin desire to (a) visit Antarctica, and (b) race in every compelling locale we visit.  The Seven Continents Club provides the appealing opportunity to race in places we’re already inclined to visit, as well as in some intriguing, out-of-the-way settings we might not otherwise consider.  I can definitely envision myself as a member of the Club someday.

The Last Great Continent (Sun – Tues, March 31 – April 2)
Once the marathon ended and the Vavilov left King George Island behind, our collective stress melted away – and for once, Antarctic thawing was a good thing.  Wes’s sweatshirt spoke for nearly everyone with its proclamation of “GOOD-BYE TENSION, HELLO PENSION”.  People animatedly recapped their race day from start to finish and swapped stories from the course.  Runner-up Billy claimed the marathon “makes Comrades look like a baby,” a comment quickly dismissed by Comrades veterans Rory and Billy’s father Pieter.  Jeff from Manhattan Beach summarized his thoughts succinctly, saying he felt “like I was beaten with a stick.”  Susan from Nova Scotia proudly labeled it her “best personal worst ever.”  And still others compared (and re-bandaged) open wounds.

For the remainder of our trip, we’d have the opportunity to stash our running shoes and immerse ourselves in Antarctica.  And for those who have yet to visit, the best description I can manage is “nature porn.” Every stark, pristine landscape looks as though it were professionally airbrushed for maximal effect – visual features, textures and lighting coalesce in seemingly unreal ways. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart might just as easily have been a naturalist talking about the Antarctic wilderness when he wrote, “I can’t define pornography, but I know it when I see it.”

Fournier Bay

Over the next three days we would:

  • witness unique, dramatically lit landscapes – deep blue icebergs framed against a backdrop of solid gray skies and unblemished white peaks – that looked more like Superman’s home planet of Krypton than unspoiled nature.  Staring up from the quiet of our floating zodiac at the exquisitely oriented layers of ice and snow, it was mind-boggling to think these layers had been accumulating, building to their present-day dimensions, unperturbed for… ever?  Plus or minus a few thousand years.
  • visit Gentoo penguin rookeries (and sighted Adelie and Chinstrap penguins) in Mikkelsen Harbor and on Cuverville Island.  Like most of the group I was fascinated by these goofy-looking, -sounding and -acting birds, many of whom passed their days conserving energy while waiting – in a race against time – for their swimming feathers to replace their down covering.
  • experience some of the most awe-inspiring moments of our lives in Neko Harbour and Fournier Bay, courtesy of breaching minke whales and several intimate encounters with humpback whales.  The humpbacks curiously chose to stay and socialize with our kayaks and zodiacs, either of which the whales easily could have flipped had they been of the mind to do so.  To appreciate the combination of power, grace and empathy that the humpback embodies, check out the video below that I filmed from our zodiac.
  • get up-close and personal with Weddell seals, Antarctic fur seals, crabeater seals, and even a leopard (penguin-munching) seal.  They may not get the attention afforded their whale and penguin brethren, but the Antarctic seals never ceased to amaze and amuse.
  • hear Assistant Expedition Leader Mark – check that, Maahk – entertain and fire up his audience with his account of how an encounter with a humpback whale – and looking the gentle creature right in the eye – changed his life.  Mark was like a man possessed as he told his story: he was animated, he was jazzed, he was pumped, and you couldn’t help but be inspired by his energy and sense of purpose.

Antarctica is a land so completely devoid of artificial noise – no distant voices, no traffic, no machinery, no hum of electric power lines – that you soon realize: every sound out here matters.  And it’s worth your time to listen.  No static, no background noise, only nature as it has been for thousands of years.  What you see is what you get, and if you don’t like what you see… well, Antarctica doesn’t care.  And it’s not changing for anyone.

When I say “Antarctica,” chances are you think “cold.”  And yes, admittedly it’s cold down here.  But if you’re willing to close your mouth, open your mind and embrace your insignificance, then air temperature won’t be your lasting memory of this place.  Because that’s what this continent asks of its guests: feel free to keep your muddy boots on, but leave your first-world problems at the door.  In subtle, sublime ways that extend beyond the forced reality of the Drake Passage, Antarctica is a land of shifting perspectives.

The many faces of penguins_MS

The many faces of penguins (clockwise from upper left): fat and contemplative, fat and curious, fat and proud, fat and frenzied

On the evening of our final full day in Antarctica, John Bingham hosted a live auction to benefit Oceanites, a non-profit science and educational foundation that collects data for the Antarctic Site Inventory.  Oceanites recently lost their National Science Foundation funding and one-third of their total funding when the Sequester kicked in.  All proceeds from our auction would go to benefit Oceanites, and runners answered the call with generous and in some cases above-and-beyond contributions.  John started fast at a decidedly un-penguin-like pace, kicked it into gear – “I told ’em I could have us out of here in 30 minutes!” – and in no time flat had found homes for mile markers 1, 13 and 26; the start/finish line banner; a “one-of-a-kind” (turns out there were two) nautical chart of our voyage; an author-autographed biography of Frank Wild, Ernest Shackleton’s right-hand man; and the opportunity to present the wake-up announcements over the ship’s PA on the final morning of our journey.

I took advantage of the silent part of the auction to score mile marker 20, a nice round number that to me signifies a key milestone in every marathon effort.

John Bingham & Mike Sohaskey at Antarctica Marathon auction for Oceanites

(Left) Auctioneer John Bingham raises money for Oceanites as Jenny Hadfield tracks the results (photo credit Maarten Vroom); (Right) The closest I’d come to taking home a penguin

Queasy come, queasy go (Wed – Fri, April 3 – 5)
During the auction and dinner that evening, the Drake Passage flexed its muscles once again as we bid the White Continent goodbye and set our sights once again on Ushuaia.  Quickly picking up where it had left off, the Drake rocked the ship with renewed ferocity – silverware clattered to the floor in the kitchen, diners had to side-step broken glass, occupied chairs slid several feet across the dining hall floor (much to the horror of the adults and the delight of the kids), and before dessert was served, half of those seated at our table had excused themselves to go lie down.

By 10:00pm the Vavilov resembled an abandoned ghost ship as people hunkered down in their cabins to ride out the “Drake Shake.”

Looking to preserve our vision during the return voyage, Katie and I both chose to forego the Transderm patch in favor of Dramamine, which worked well for me at a dose of one pill every 12 hours.  No drowsiness, no blurred vision and no seasickness.  Howl as it might outside the portholes in our cabin, the Drake would have to look elsewhere for easy prey.

Mike Sohaskey, Rory Steyn & Katie Ho on Vavilov in Antarctica

Coming together with like-minded folks like Rory, Nelson Mandela’s former chief of security and a 12-time Comrades Marathon finisher, was a highlight of the trip

But life on the Vavilov those two days was anything but comfortable.  As near-hurricane force winds buffeted the ship, the theater that played out from our front-row seats on the bridge could well have been Mother Nature’s production of “The Sound and the Fury.”  And again I felt very, very small.  Credit to the One Ocean staff, they tried to keep our minds occupied… but even if you’re not prone to motion sickness, it’s hard to keep your head in the game when the world is constantly shifting beneath your feet.  With the ship rising and falling unpredictably I felt like a human accordion: tall and stretched-out one second, short and compact the next.

But even the Drake couldn’t stifle all productivity.  Fortunately I had the opportunity during this time to sit and talk shop for a few minutes with Jenny Hadfield.  And I’m glad I did – her professional voice of experience was graciously shared and greatly appreciated.  I had questions about writing and blogging, and she shared her own story of how she’d gotten started in the exercise physiology field and had gradually transitioned to a now-successful writing career (her popular advice column “Ask Coach Jenny” offers training tips and can be found on the Runner’s World website).  She’s not only a terrific professional resource but also, like nearly everyone I met on the Vavilov, a genuine and thoughtful person.

We were all urged to submit our ten best Antarctica photos, and that evening Nate the great photographer of the One Ocean staff presented a slideshow he’d compiled (in record time) from our selected images.  Complete with its own soundtrack, the slideshow was a tour de force that alternately had the audience laughing, cheering, ooh-ing and aah-ing.  Best of all, the One Ocean staff provided each passenger with a USB jump drive containing – among other info – the slideshow, daily newsletters, staff bios, nautical briefing logs and spreadsheet of wildlife sightings from the previous ten days.  I probably should have saved myself (and you) a lot of time by just posting all the data from that jump drive in place of this recap.

They may seem bumbly fumbly stumbly on land, but… proceed to perceive a pleasing pack of porpoising penguins:

It’s been ice to meet you (Fri – Sat, April 5 – 6)
Our voyage culminated that evening with the Captain’s Dinner – salmon, hooray! – in which the Captain of the Vavilov was appropriately recognized by all and presented with a marathon finisher’s medal by Thom.  Throughout the meal glasses were raised, gratitude was expressed, egos were stroked and the microphone rarely sat silent.  Thom invited Winter to say a few words and she acquitted herself well, reminding us about Team Winter and urging everyone to commit their running to a cause important to them.

After dinner we set about trying to repack our once-efficiently crammed bags, a task that felt like trying to shove toothpaste back in the tube.  And the next morning we awoke before the sun in Ushuaia, where we began the dual process of reacclimating to civilization and saying our sentimental goodbyes.  Sadly, I realize some folks I’ll never see again, though my cyber-stalking skills will stay sharp.  But the world isn’t big enough to contain these runners’ passion for their sport, and I look forward to (pun intended) running into some of them again in other states, in other countries and on other continents.

Katie Ho leading penguin line in Ushuaia

Katie knows how to pick her running battles (Ushuaia)

Clearly Antarctica was a life-changing whirlwind of firsts and lasts.  And add one more to that list: it was the first time we’d traveled with a group of highly motivated, like-minded athletes… though hopefully it won’t be the last.  Opportunities like this one don’t knock – or in this case email – very often.  My thanks to Thom Gilligan and an anonymous iceberg with paint streaks on it floating somewhere in the Southern Ocean.

Eventually, 38 hours after last waking up on the Vavilov – and following a 3-hour delay in Ushuaia, 3½-hour flight to Buenos Aires, 4½-hour layover in Buenos Aires, 11-hour flight to Dallas/Fort Worth, 3½-hour layover in DFW (1½ hours once we cleared customs and security), 4-hour flight to San Francisco, one-hour train ride to downtown Berkeley and one-mile walk with our bags slung over our shoulders or trailing behind us – we found ourselves standing, exhausted but triumphant, on the doorstep where we’d started Mike and Katie’s excellent adventure 17 days earlier.  Climbing the short flight of stairs inside our front door, I dropped my bags on the top step and exhaled for what felt like the first time since Argentina.  Then I did what I always do when I don’t know what to do next.

I went for a run.

The sun rises over Ushuaia and sets on our Antarctica adventure

BOTTOM LINE:  Assuming I’m talking to running enthusiasts here, my summary statement is simple: run the Antarctica Marathon at least once in your life.  Unless of course you’re a compulsive type-A personality (and running attracts them like no other sport) who hates surprises, then you might want to skip this race.

It’s not an inexpensive outing, but that’s hardly surprising… you get what you pay for.

Was it the most challenging race I’ve run?  No, that distinction still belongs to last year’s sunbaked Mount Diablo Trails Challenge 50K.  But it was certainly challenging enough.  Preparation-wise, it’s important to bear in mind that the Antarctica Marathon is a bona fide trail race, which places it outside many runners’ comfort zone.  Unfortunately, if you want to race on this continent it’s not as though you have a slew of choices – you can’t just opt for the road version of the marathon.  Sensible expectations will go a long way toward optimizing your Antarctica Marathon experience.

PRODUCTION:  Thom and his Marathon Tours crew of Scott, Anita, John and Jenny did a commendable job of orchestrating all aspects of the Antarctica Marathon – from regrouping on the fly after the Great Iceberg Attack of ’13 to their near-flawless race day execution.  I certainly didn’t envy them their pre-race field trip over to King George Island to set up the course, with subfreezing gale-force winds blasting them in the face while they struggled to pound each marker stake through several inches of surface ice.  But set it up they did, and come race day the course was well marked (my own personal detour notwithstanding) and pretty much dead-on accurate at 26.2 ± 0.1 miles.

Other companies have hurried to cash in on the demand from runners seeking to run a marathon at the bottom of the world.  But no other company can boast Thom’s breadth of experience and connections in Antarctica.  At least two companies offer a one-day Antarctica experience in which they fly into King George Island, immediately organize a marathon and then fly out the same day.  To me that would feel like scoring tickets to the Super Bowl, showing up at the stadium and then watching the game on the TVs in the concourse.  Sure you could say you were there… but were you really there?

Apparently my expert editor on all things Antarctica grew tired of penguin pictures

My main critique of the Antarctica race experience would be the post-race awards.  For example, the finisher’s medal should vary from year to year, and should always include the year of the race (or barring that, complementary engraving on the back of the medal that includes name, finish time and year).  There’s no excuse for the fact that the Antarctica Marathon medal has remained the same for at least six straight years now (dating back to the image I found online of the same medal from the 2008 race).  This is particularly true when you’re hosting a group of dedicated, goal-oriented runners, many of them 50 States/Seven Continents Club members for whom race bling is all-important, and deservedly so.

In addition, it would be nice if age-group winners merited distinct medals – for example, a penguin holding up one flipper or two to signify first or second place – to accompany the handshake and photo-op that currently await them. I’d be happy to receive one retroactively.  I feel like these are easily implemented suggestions that would enhance the race experience, even in Antarctica.

UPDATE (15 May 2013): As a runner hell-bent on maintaining forward progress no matter what, I rarely back-pedal… but in this case I’m happy to make an exception.  Yesterday I received in the mail – no doubt delayed in transit because we recently moved – a stylish plaque emblazoned with the Antarctica Marathon logo and engraved to commemorate my first-place finish in the men’s 40-49 age group.  Clearly I had no idea of this impending accolade when I wrote the above sentiment, and I certainly understand why the Marathon Tours crew wouldn’t want to lug 100 race medals plus roughly two dozen plaques down to Antarctica.  And so I stand appreciatively corrected.

Overall, given their professionalism and intimate knowledge of the running community, together with their catalog of compelling international marathons, I look forward to traveling with Thom and his Marathon Tours crew again.

Liz of OOE secures a kayaker, then requests a rowing implement with the order to “Paddle me!”

But in the end, the One Ocean Expeditions staff (and the largely unseen Russian crew members of the Vavilov) were the stars of this show.  Andrew and his 12-person staff did everything in their power to ensure our Antarctica experience met – and in most cases exceeded – expectations.  Without exception, every member of the OOE staff was highly competent, professional, knowledgeable, experienced, entertaining, happy to answer questions and just plain fun to be around.  Granted I haven’t traveled to Antarctica with any other cruise company, but I can recommend OOE without reservation.  Based on conversations with and body language of other passengers, I’m confident the vast majority would echo my thoughts.

As with any successful race, the volunteers were a key element of the Antarctica Marathon.  No doubt I wasn’t the most happy-go-lucky and responsive runner out on the course – and they had to see me six times in my 4½ hours – but Kathy and her crew (Katie, Sharon, Sally, Wayne and company) stood by the start/finish line for the ENTIRE race, and were there to cheer emphatically and shout their support after every out-and-back.  I never dreamed that Katie would willingly – and dare I say happily – stand idly outside in Antarctica for five hours.  Yet there she was, smiling broadly and cheering loudly every time I passed.  Kudos to her solid layering strategery, Arctic Parka and Wet Skin for keeping her toasty and for inspiring that kind of gumption.

Rating the Antarctica Marathon experience based on the race t-shirt feels a bit like rating a 5-star restaurant based on the embroidery of the napkins.  But since I’m clearly not one to cut corners in recapping a race, here goes:  the t-shirt is nice.  Very nice.  And colorful, as long as you’re a fan of baby blue.  It’s a high-quality tech t-shirt with mesh shoulder and side panels.  And if you happen to like the Antarctica Marathon logo emblazoned on the back, then you’re in luck, because the Marathon Tours crew has an assortment of race-related apparel available for purchase in Buenos Aires and on their website.

Antarctica Marathon medal (2013)

For other (more concise) perspectives, check out Jenny Hadfield’s “10 Reasons to Run the Antarctica Marathon” on the Runner’s World website, as well as Winter’s report on “A World Record in Antarctica, and Much More” at Athleta.net.

FINAL STATS:
March 30, 2013
26.5 miles (including an unplanned 0.3-mile detour) on King George Island, Antarctica (continent 2 of 7)
Finish time & pace: 4:29:50 (first time running in Antarctica), 10:10/mile
Finish place: 8/60 overall (73 starters), 1/10 in M(40-49) age group
Race weather: penguin-pleasing cold, low winds (starting temps in the low 20s)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect software): 2,023ft ascent, 2,031ft descent

For a race in which my major concern was NOT doing the splits, these aren’t so awful

Roads?  Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.
– Emmett “Doc” Brown, “Back To The Future”

Spyhopping humpback in Fournier Bay, Antarctica (photo credit: Mike Sohaskey)

(PREFACE: This is not a blog post in the usual sense.  Rather, it’s my attempt to chronicle an amazing adventure in two acts, and to – “demystify” is the wrong word – inspire an appreciation for a remarkable ecosystem that’s much more than an alien land of ice and snow.  For anyone seeking an even more detailed account of the Antarctica Marathon and its history, I’d recommend John Hanc’s book, The Coolest Race on Earth.  And for time-challenged readers who simply want the gist of our journey, I’d recommend skipping all the cumbersome words and sticking to the pictures.  Whatever your preference, thanks for reading!)

More so than any month in recent memory, March was a month of firsts.  Or maybe more accurately, it was a month of lasts.

Cut to the morning of February 26, and the last place I expected to find myself a month later was exactly where I found myself a month later: joining upwards of 100 highly motivated runners – including one celebrated back-of-the-packer with the all-too-appropriate nickname of “The Penguin” – aboard a Russian research vessel headed toward the South Pole to race The Last Marathon on the Last Great Continent.  All under the watchful eye of a leader named Gilligan.

As absurd as a “spontaneous” trip to Antarctica sounds, that’s exactly what this would be.  Sometimes, truth really is stranger than fiction… and even less likely.

Damn the icebergs, full speed ahead!
Rewind to the morning of February 26, a morning that began like any other: my spring racing plans were gradually taking shape as I contemplated a return to either the L.A. Marathon – one of my 2012 racing highlights – or the Oakland Marathon, site of my half marathon PR (1:34:02) last year.  Also in my sights were one or more upcoming trail races with my favorite local racing outfit, Brazen Racing.

Yep, spring 2013 was falling into place… until the following e-mail message hit my Inbox, and my best-laid plans went out the porthole:

dear Mike,

The ship that we had chartered for the 2013 Antarctica Marathon to depart in a couple of days has been damaged by an iceberg.

We have rescheduled the trip using the sister ship, the Akademik Vavilov which we have chartered many times in the past.

You are currently waitlisted or confirmed in the future for the Antarctica Marathon. Are you interested in confirming space for these new dates in 2013?

[details omitted]

It always is an adventure. Please advise as soon as possible since most of the confirmed passengers have rescheduled for the later dates. We will have a few spots available.

Please contact us immediately if you are interested.

Thom Gilligan
Marathon Tours & Travel

My immediate reaction was probably similar to yours… 101 years after the Titanic kissed the bottom of the ocean, actual operating ships are still colliding with icebergs?  My secondary response, though, was one of adrenalized bewilderment – Antarctica?  On such short notice?  Was this a legitimate option for us?

In short – yes, it was.  Due to the large number of runners vying for a limited number of slots (roughly 100 per year), the Antarctica Marathon typically requires years of advance planning and a lengthy sojourn on the Marathon Tours waitlist.  As referenced in their e-mail, we’d entered the waitlist in mid-2012 and in doing so had confirmed our spot – for 2016.  So we figured to have three more years to plan for this trip.

Take me to your freezer!

Thing is, I hate procrastination, and putting off until tomorrow what I can do today.  Paradoxically, I have a lot of patience – research science and delayed gratification go hand-in-hand.  But Antarctica promised to be the opportunity of a lifetime.  Cliché as it may sound, life really is too short, as we were starkly reminded by this past week’s tragic events in Boston.  Who knows where we’ll be and what we’ll be doing three years from now?

And although I wouldn’t classify myself as a “bucket list” runner, I do have a short list of three marathons that I consider must-do events: Boston, New York City and Antarctica.  What did it matter that neither Katie nor I owned a legitimate cold-weather jacket, or that I’d only run in tights once in my entire life?  At least we wouldn’t need any vaccinations or immunizations for this trip… I’m pretty sure penguin fever is both unpreventable and incurable.

As the nail in the coffin of March normalcy, we found ourselves in a relatively obligation-free time of personal and professional transition (another post for another time).  Thus the awesome realization dawned on us that yeah, March was actually the perfect time for a frigid flight of fancy.  And within two days, we’d committed to join 98 other adventure-seekers on an unanticipated journey to the Last Great Continent.  Thankfully, our voyage was scheduled to last a bit longer than a 3-hour tour.

And so it was that on March 21, after a highly successful raid on the winter clearance racks at our local REI, The North Face and assorted outlets, Katie and I found ourselves on a flight bound for Buenos Aires, Argentina, where our 17-day adventure would begin.  With little time for pre-trip research and little idea of what to expect (other than the obligatory requests to “Bring back a penguin!”), our ignorance was bliss.

So, just sit right back and you’ll read a tale, a tale of a fateful trip….

ARGENTINA (Fri – Tues, March 22 – 26)
Since this is ostensibly a running blog, I’ll limit my thoughts on the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires to the high (and low) points of our 5-day visit – though use of the word “concise” here would be disingenuous:

Overall, we had a lively visit to Argentina’s capital city – which wasn’t a foregone conclusion, given that I have virtually no interest in soccer, tango dancing or huge slabs of beef.  But with its European-inspired architecture, socioeconomically diverse neighborhoods, thriving theatre industry and plentiful green spaces, Buenos Aires is a culturally vibrant city and a terrific place to explore on foot.  Fortunately, my sub-fluent yet functional Spanish proved good enough to point us in the right direction and keep us out of trouble.

El Obelisco in Plaza de la República, Buenos Aires (photo credit: Mike Sohaskey)

Good morning, good afternoon and good night in the Plaza de la República:
El Obelisco stands on the site where the Argentine flag was first hoisted in Buenos Aires in 1812

Architecturally, the city is a dynamic and captivating mix of old and new.  Highlights of our bus and walking tour included the ornate mausoleums of La Recoleta Cemetary (where many notable Argentinians including Eva Perón are interred), the politically charged Plaza de Mayo (site of La Casa Rosada, mansion and office of the President of Argentina), and the recently renovated Teatro Colón (famed opera house which Pavarotti once praised for its “perfect” acoustics).  And not surprisingly, images of favorite son Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires Jorge Bergoglio, a.k.a. Pope Francis, now adorn the city.

For a city of Buenos Aires’ reputation and importance, however, I was disappointed by the state of abject disrepair in which many of its sidewalks find themselves.  In many places it looked as though The Avengers had been filmed in the city and nobody had bothered to clean up the rubble.  With a marathon on the horizon and after several near tweaks, I felt fortunate to get out of Argentina with both ankles intact.

Photo collage of Buenos Aires highlights (photo credit: Mike Sohaskey)

Buenos Aires illustrated (clockwise from upper left): La Casa Rosada, executive mansion and office of the President of Argentina; plaque marking Eva Perón’s tomb in La Recoleta Cemetery; tango demonstration in the Recoleta district; one of the city’s many neglected sidewalks; colorful Caminito street in the neighborhood of La Boca; steel sculpture of Evita on the north facade of the Social Development and Health Ministry; the steel-and-aluminum Floralis Genérica sculpture in Plaza de las Naciones Unidas

As a runner, I was impressed by the number of Porteños (locals) out on the weekend walking, running or cycling through the city’s many bustling parks.  The typical Porteño I saw certainly was not built like someone whose daily diet consists of at least two large servings of beef – I’d guess the average Houstonian weighs roughly the same as 1.5 Porteños.

Speaking of food, the only part of each day I didn’t look forward to were the meals, for instance the vegetarian pizza we ordered for dinner one evening that arrived smothered in ham (I assumed the pig had been an herbivore).  In addition, the extra – and not insignificant – fee that several restaurants charged for “table service,” coupled with their insistence on serving and charging for bottled water despite the potability of the local tap water, amounted to epic scams.

I don’t usually fault cities for their names, but “Buenos Aires” is a conspicuous misnomer.  Granted the city was originally recognized for its “good airs” (or more likely, its “fair winds”) way back in the 16th century, but these days it would be like changing Omaha’s name to Ocean View, Nebraska.  Collectively, the carbon monoxide-induced asphyxiation from urban traffic (particularly the large number of freight trucks headed to and from the port), the secondhand asphyxiation from the local smoking population, and the impenetrable char-grilled asphyxiation from the parrillas (barbecue grills) bordering the Reserva Ecológica where I ran on two occasions, combined to ensure that my lungs never got too comfortable in their pleura.

This was the top Google search result for parrilla, the catch-all name for the city’s popular BBQ grills.

By keeping close tabs on our cameras and backpacks, we were able to depart Buenos Aires with our wallets and all other personal belongings intact.  Unfortunately, not all our fellow runners were so lucky… we heard of at least two cameras being stolen from dinner tables, and one trusting fellow (a fellow Bay Area native, in fact) lost his wallet to an elaborate pickpocket ruse involving fake bird droppings on his head, two helpful bystanders with a towel and an immediately accessible getaway car.

We meet at last (Sunday, March 24)
Our third evening in Buenos Aires featured the Antarctica Welcome Banquet Dinner.  Here we met Thom Gilligan, the founder and leader of Boston-based Marathon Tours, as well as the four members of his race crew who would be joining us in Antarctica: Scott and Anita, respectively the General Manager and Environmental Officer of Marathon Tours, as well as the husband-and-wife team of John “The Penguin” Bingham and Jenny Hadfield, both well-known to the running community for their books and popular columns in Runner’s World and elsewhere.

John opened with some remarks about The Last Marathon, the first organized sporting event in the history of Antarctica.  Thom then said a few words about “Antarcticer” (his Boston-based pronunciation) and introduced our upcoming adventure with the brutally honest classified ad ostensibly posted in the London Times by explorer Ernest Shackleton, in preparation for his 1907 Antarctic expedition:

Ernest Shackleton

Musical accompaniment for the subsequent slideshow included Dido’s “White Flag,” with its (so we all hoped) tongue-in-cheek chorus of “I will go down with this ship.”  After the slideshow, Thom asked for a show of hands as to who had run a sub-3 hour marathon in the past two years.  Three hands went up.  He then asked for a show of hands from runners in the 3:00 to 3:30 range – three or four more hands went up, including mine.  Although I knew this wouldn’t be a typical marathon, in that the 50-59 and 60-69 age groups would be the most competitive, I knew there would still be plenty of representation by the younger demographics, and I was shocked to find myself immediately seeded so highly.

But for me the most striking realization of the evening, which I hadn’t fully appreciated to that point, was the dedication and commitment of every person in that room.  True we were all headed for Antarctica, and that in itself set this room apart.  But whereas running for most people is a hobby, a way to alleviate stress and stay fit, for this group it was a lifestyle, an obsession in the healthiest sense of the word.  And while not everyone in that banquet hall may have possessed the stereotypical “runner’s body” (that’s why it’s a stereotype), I’d be reminded in the coming week that mind really does matter.

Thom

Thom Gilligan introduces an excited group of marathoners to what lies ahead

That evening I met seemingly normal, well-adjusted individuals who had run over 100, over 200, over 300 marathons.  I met several individuals who had raced in all 50 states, on all 7 continents, and yet had never run a trail race.  I met Winter, a 14-year-old Junior Olympian from Oregon who’d formed Team Winter and resolutely set a goal to run a marathon on all seven continents in support of prostate cancer awareness, after her father was diagnosed with the disease in 2008 and passed away less than a year later.  I met Wes, a 78-year-old lifelong Purdue Boilermaker who’d run 200 marathons (including 100 in the past decade) and in 23 European countries, and for whom Antarctica would be his 7th continent and final marathon.  I met Rory, a charismatic and “Jo-burg proud” South African who had completed the notoriously grueling Comrades Ultramarathon 12 times.  I met Brendan, a running coach and 50 states/6 continents finisher from Chicago who’d failed in his first bid to complete the Antarctica Marathon three years earlier, and was back to exact his racing revenge.  I met the Canadian duo of 70-year-old Georgine and her son James, and was amused to discovered that she was the runner in the family who had persuaded her hockey-playing son to join her in running the Antarctica half marathon.  And I met many others whose stories I’d hear and whose lives I’d share over the next two weeks.

As nonchalantly as most people would discuss their kids’ soccer game, conversations centered around questions like “How many continents is this for you?” and “Have you run Kilimanjaro yet?”  The Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu, the Arctic Circle, even Antarctica already in a few cases – my travel companions had left their footprints, literally, on nearly every conceivable destination on the planet.

I had to admit… these were my kind of people.

Destination: Antarctica (Tues – Thurs, March 26 – 28)
Fast-forward 36 hours, and after one more day spent appreciating the many faces of Buenos Aires, we found ourselves on a flight to Ushuaia (pronounced Oos-why-uh by the locals), the southernmost city in the world and the capital of Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America.  As the plane touched down in Ushuaia, the cheers from the locals onboard and the sight of the woman seated next to me crossing herself suggested our adventure had begun earlier than planned.

Katie and Mike Sohaskey in Ushuaia, Argentina

It’s the end of the world as we know it… and Katie and I feel fine

After a brief layover and stroll around this sleepy port town we boarded the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, the Russian ship (and one-time research vessel) that would – barring an unforeseen iceberg encounter – carry 105 passengers, 41 crew members and 13 expedition staff to our destination across 600 nautical miles and a particularly gnarly stretch of open ocean that we’d soon come to know all too well.

With rainbows and mist-shrouded peaks dominating the landscape, we “threw ropes” (set sail) at around 6:00pm local time on Tuesday and slowly made our way out of the Beagle Channel.  From that point forward, responsibility for our well-being fell squarely into the hands of the 13-member staff of One Ocean Expeditions.

Akademik Sergey Vavilov in Ushuaia port (photo credit: Mike Sohaskey)

In the Ushuaia port, the Akademik Sergey Vavilov awaits its human cargo

As it turns out, we couldn’t have entrusted our safety and well-being to a more competent, experienced and entertaining group.  As the Managing Director of Canadian-based One Ocean Expeditions, Andrew Prossin would be our solidly-in-charge Expedition Leader whose soothing voice and Canadian sensibilities would greet us first thing every morning with his wake-up announcements over the ship’s PA.  In addition, at each meal he would set our expectations as to weather (always unpredictable), changes to the itinerary and opportunities for wildlife sightings.  His understated cry of “hooray” which punctuated the end of his announcements became a rallying cry for the entire ship.

His One Ocean staff would be an appropriately eclectic collection of three fellow Canadians (Derek, Zoe and Nate); one Australian (Ewan, the kayaking king); a Dane (Louise, our hotel manager); a Welshman-cum-South African-cum-Australian (Mark, passionate whale conservationist and Andrew’s Assistant Expedition Leader); one far-North American (yoga guru Liz, whose “Alaska girls kick ass!” sticker immediately attracted my attention); one Portuguese (all-important mixologist Joao); and chefs Jeremy, John and Mike who, together with pastry chef Elizabeth, embraced and conquered the unenviable task of creatively providing three meals a day, every day, while hundreds of miles from the nearest grocery store or farmer’s market.  Before this trip I’d never eaten, much less looked forward to, daily lunch dessert.

One Ocean Expeditions staff

The One Ocean Expeditions staff included Expedition Leader Andrew (with microphone), Liz, Mark, Ewan, Nate, Zoe and Derek

Katie and I spent the first hour onboard familiarizing ourselves with the ship’s layout and idiosyncracies, including the less-than-romantic bunk beds in our third-deck cabin that prevented me from sitting up straight in either bed.

The next two days belonged to the Drake Passage, the necessary evil of open water between the Beagle Channel and Antarctica that would test every passenger’s sea legs, not to mention their seasickness meds.  We both chose to use the Transderm Scopolamine patch, a nickel-sized prescription patch applied behind the ear that prevents motion sickness for up to three days.  Which it did admirably well, the main drawback being the side effect of dilated pupils that messed up our vision something fierce.  As a result, neither of us felt quite like ourselves during those two days crossing the Drake, as our literal inability to focus prevented productive behaviors such as reading or writing.

This is your brain on scopolamine (left); normal undilated pupil shown on right for comparison 

Unfortunately, all postcards had to be submitted before race day if we wanted them to be postmarked from Antarctica.  And so I found myself seated in the lounge of a wickedly swaying boat with one eye closed, squinting through my open eye Popeye-style as I tried to stabilize both hand and vision long enough to write legible quips about what an awesome time we were having at a destination we hadn’t yet reached.  Lucky family members will no doubt wonder (assuming the cards ever arrive) how many shots of tequila preceded my postcard-ing sessions.

Luckily the One Ocean and Marathon Tours staff had planned other, less cerebrally taxing distractions to pass the time.  Among these, Thom talked about the history of his brainchild, the Antarctica Marathon; John held court and lightened the mood with his entertaining perspective on life as a back-of-the-pack runner; Derek laid down mad knowledge on “Birds of the Southern Ocean”; Liz provided historical context in detailing the ill-fated Scott/Amundsen “Race to the Pole”; and Nate capped the evening with “Marine Superstitions,” after which nobody was caught whistling aboard ship.

Check out this footage of life in the Drake Passage (a.k.a. the “carbo-unloading zone”), filmed through the porthole in our cabin:

By Thursday evening we’d more or less cleared the Drake Passage, crossing the Antarctic Convergence and the 60th parallel south to enter the Southern Ocean. Soon after that we approached the South Shetland Islands and specifically King George Island, site of Saturday’s upcoming race.  At that point even our first whale (fin whale, to be exact) sighting of the trip couldn’t disguise the fact that the natives were getting restless.

As race day approached and hours spent aboard ship accumulated, the restlessness and nervous energy among the passengers continued to build.  The most tangible reflection of this mindset may have been the bar/lounge on the upper deck of the ship, which experienced two sparsely populated evenings as normally relaxed, sociable runners morphed into their water-swilling, teetotalling pre-race alter egos.  Our bartender Joao was perplexed by but resigned to this transformation, which he’d clearly experienced before.  And his voice of experience predicted a significantly more laid-back ambiance once the race was over.  I raised my water bottle in agreement, and in a toast to more carefree days ahead.

Keeping expectations at (Maxwell) bay (Friday, March 29)
With the planet’s southernmost continent within sight at last, the harsh reality of where we were and what we were about to do finally hit home.  Stepping out on the sixth floor deck to gaze upon King George Island – so close and yet so far – I was greeted by the stinging sensation of a million frozen, finely honed razors slicing right through me.  My skin and two lightweight layers were defenseless against the Antarctic wind.  And to think that tomorrow at this time, I’d be running 26.2 miles in this.  Let the mind games begin…

Despite the initial cold shock, the consensus adjective of the day to describe our first encounter with Antarctica was simply “indescribable.”  A picture may be worth a thousand words, but in this case one would have to suffice.

The plan for the day called for Thom and his crew to make their way across Maxwell Bay to King George Island early that morning to set up the race course.  Meanwhile, the rest of us would finally make an excursion off the boat and potentially even stretch our legs on land at some point.  Ah, perchance to dream….  Instead, the Antarctic winds did what the Antarctic winds do, churning up the water and making conditions unsafe to launch the zodiacs (the rigid inflatable boats used to transport people from ship to shore).  It wasn’t until 1:00pm that the wind died down enough to launch the boats and send Thom’s crew (plus ATVs) on their way to King George Island.  Many of us watched as the zodiacs made their not-so-long yet slow voyage across the bay and toward the Russian base at Bellingshausen Station.

Thom and his crew

The zodiacs approach the Russian base on King George Island, on their way to set up the marathon course

This in itself was uplifting news, because again this was Antarctica, where even the seemingly straightforward process of getting off the boat couldn’t be taken for granted.  Still fresh on everyone’s mind was Thom’s unsettling tale of his 2001 Antarctica Marathon expedition, when uncooperative weather had seized the day(s), only to have the passengers seize it right back.  After several days of thwarted attempts to launch the zodiacs in rough waters, a consensus decision had finally been reached that the show must go on, and that the marathon would be run ON. THE. DECK. OF. THE. SHIP.  Apparently one of the passengers that year had been a qualified race distance certifier, and he mapped out a 26.2-mile course that comprised 422 laps around the upper deck.  The race was run over a 24-hour time period, and don’t ask me how each runner kept track of his/her number of laps completed.  Most strategically, the ship had been moored such that the anchor just touched the continent of Antarctica, thereby validating the venue.  Thus went the story of how the 2001 Antarctica Marathon was staged under the most challenging conditions to date, a testament to human fortitude and resolve that exactly nobody on our ship had any interest in repeating.

Speaking of human fortitude… with our plans for an afternoon expedition foiled, everyone gathered in the bar/lounge to watch “Crossing The Ice,” an intimidating/inspiring documentary about two Aussies and one Norwegian who found themselves competing against each other to become the first persons to complete the trek to the South Pole and back unassisted.  I then retreated to the basement gym to, if nothing else, get the blood pumping and stretch my legs before I’d have to use and abuse them the next day.

Antarctica Marathon 2013 pre-race briefing (photo credit: Mike Sohaskey)

A weary Thom addresses a roomful of restless runners during his pre-race briefing

After dinner – the last supper before the race, which happened to coincide with this being Good Friday – Thom stepped to the microphone for his pre-race briefing looking ruddy and dog-tired from his afternoon excursion.  He informed us that the hilly course would consist of two different out-and-backs that marathoners would run three times, with the start/finish line separating the two.  The first out-and-back would take us past the Russian base, then out to the first turn-around point at the Uruguaryan Artigas Base and back, while the second out-and-back would lead past the Chilean Eduardo Frei Base and out to the turn-around at the Chinese Great Wall Station before retracing its steps.  There would be icy (if not muddy) patches to negotiate that Thom estimated at around 5% of the total course distance.  And based on today’s course conditions, he and his crew would be strictly enforcing the 6-1/2-hour time limit – anything longer and we risked hypothermia.

Google Earth rendering of the Antarctica Marathon 2013 course (credit: Mike Sohaskey)

Google Earth rendering of The Last Marathon course – thanks to Dan, from whom I stole the idea;
my personal detour can be seen leading toward the airstrip near the yellow church
(Click on the map for a larger image)

As we’d suspected, the day had been a rough one for Thom and his crew – John predicted that if we’d had to run the race that day in those conditions, nobody would have finished.  But he concluded the briefing by injecting a shot of humor, warning the room that “Bandits (runners who race without paying an entry fee) will be pulled off the course.”

Back in my cabin I systematically organized my apparel, bottles of Cytomax/GU, Garmin (don’t be silly, of course GPS works in Antarctica!) and thoughts for the day ahead.  And I realized that realistically, I had no idea what to expect.  Cold to be sure, but beyond that I had zero expectations: could I run a sub-4:00 marathon in these conditions?  Probably not, though “probably not” wouldn’t stop me from trying.  Runners are notorious for downplaying expectations – case in point, those ultra-competitive types who qualify for the Boston Marathon and then vow to treat it as a “victory lap”.

But this time, I realized as sleep engulfed my upper bunk – this time I really was out in the cold.

Continued and concluded in Act 2… with an actual race report!