The Ice - Page 3
Traditional Christmas Day attire for RATW spectators. Photo by Haley Buffman.
On Christmas morning the thermometer had climbed to minus 12, allowing me to shed my balaclava and wear three layers on my torso rather than four.
Forty of us gathered at the South Pole marker in front of the Elevated Station waiting for 10 o’clock to arrive. Rudimentary race numbers were printed on office paper and pinned to our jackets. Behind us, several generations of diesel engines of snowmobiles, PistonBullys and tractors rumbled in anticipation.
I chatted with Curtis who, thanks to the various jobs that had brought him down there, was toeing the starting line for a fifth time in as many years. Behind the wind shield that came down over his nose and chin, a thick, brown beard covered the left side of his face, while the right side was cleanly shaven. Beneath his hat a gathering of curly hair started from his forehead as a mohawk and finished in the back with a mullet. Nobody thought twice about Curtis’ outlandish appearance or quiet mumblings as though the oddity of living and working at the South Pole trumped all others. Back home, when asked the question of why somebody would return to such a harsh continent year after year the catchphrase response fit him most appropriately: “I came down the first year for the experience, the next year for the money and a third year because I didn’t fit in anywhere else.” Curtis was at home at the South Pole.
With a ready, set, go, the fire captain turned race marshall set us in motion. I wasted little time and moved quickly to the front of the pack.
I was perhaps the only competitor on that squeaky starting line whose pre-Antarctica occupation had been “semi-professional mountain runner.” For several years prior I had piecemealed together a humble income with prize money, sponsorship earnings, restaurant work and the occasional yard sale of running gear given to me from one source or another. With my airfare usually paid for and without the burden of health insurance and cell-phone bills on my budget, I was able to embrace the simple, nomadic lifestyle of a Herman Hesse character, calling my home in the Rockies, the Appalachians, the Sierra Nevadas, the Julian Alps, the Bavarian Alps, the Dolomites and beyond.
Out of the same boredom that propels a child to put dissimilar insects in a jar together, Chef Brown had tried to pit Curtis and me against each other over the weeks leading up to the race. The effort was in vain as there was little doubt in my mind that I was going to win the race and Curtis simply didn’t care. But the Race Around the World, I learned, wasn’t so much about competition as it was a celebration of a truly unique community and place.
In December of 1979, a baker, a cosmic-ray scientist and a few others set out from the South Pole marker covering a distance of just over two miles. The race quickly became a Christmas Day celebration and 31 years later, the tradition continued. Given its remote location and the fact that it is open strictly to people working at the South Pole, the Race Around the World is arguably one of the most selective races on the planet.
Circling an area no larger than Vatican City the course embraced most of the station. The clockwise loop took us past the towers of large empty spools stacked in a long row with a child-like hand 20 feet high called Spoolhenge.
After passing through a collection of excess-tin arches left over from the station’s construction, we made our way along the runway where a couple airplanes sat idle. I glanced over my shoulder and saw Curtis in a distant second place. A snowmobile zoomed up next to me for the final quarter mile pulling behind it a couch on a sled with several excited spectators. The energy, exertion, rumble of the machines and costumes all lent themselves a Mad Max quality to the event and I half expected a spectator to run over and tackle me.
After having passed through the time zones of Botswana, the Persian Gulf and India, past the storage berms of food, plywood, toilet paper, past Papua New Guinea, Siberia and Polynesia I crossed the finish line and won the race in 13 minutes 32 seconds. After Curtis had crossed the finish line and the coughing brought on by the sharp, cold air had stopped he and I looked out into the distance.
“There’s a little more to it once you’re here for a little while. Huh.”
Gates at the Geographic South Pole after winning the Race Around the World. Photo by Haley Buffman.