The Last Desert: Racing On Antarctica

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Trail races aren’t often held where trails don’t exist. But in November 2016, 61 runners from 24 countries gathered in the trail-less expanses of Antarctica. What united them was a love of exploring the most remote parts of the planet through endurance challenges, like this one—The Last Desert race.

After two days of nothing but open ocean punctuated by the occasional whale and bouts of seasickness aboard the rocking 293-foot Plancius, crossing the infamous Drake Passage toward Antarctica, competitors approached shore. Many people picture Antarctica as an endless expanse of flat snow and ice. However, the pole sits at an elevation of 9,301 feet on a continent the size of Australia. As the Plancius approached the continent, the runners marveled at the coast lined by mountains rising from the ice-covered sea. Exposed land only existed along the shores.

Curious Penguins were the race’s only local spectators and often utilized competitors’ tracks to climb up to their roosts.

Tweaking the Formula

4Desert races typically feature point-to-point courses broken up over six stages. But, in Antarctica, there simply isn’t enough land or coastal access to route 15-to-50-mile stages.

The result was a timed race over six separate days with short, looped courses held in separate locations. Every night, the Plancius travelled to a new location. Every morning, a crew of 4Desert staff and guides boarded a rigged-hull, inflatable Zodiac boat to scout and mark a course. “Trails” were routed over as much exposed terrain as possible, mostly found along the shore, but the majority was through knee-deep snow. Occasionally the course crossed glaciers, where competitors were required to remain within a couple of feet of the marked track to avoid hidden crevasses.

Unpredictable weather and shifting ice were a constant concern. If there was too much ice blocking access to the shore, or if weather or wind was too severe, entire stages could be canceled—in past years, as many as half the stages have been eliminated. In case of a weather event, racers were required to bring a drop bag to shore with insulated layers, a sleeping bag and a bivy sack. This year, only the fourth stage was cut short, when shifting winds pushed ice toward shore, risking the racers’ return to the Plancius.

The first stage took place on King George Island near several nation-run research stations—Russian, Chilean, Chinese and Uruguayan. The snow-packed roads connecting the stations made up a 14-kilometer loop. Racers ran for 12.5 hours the first day, allowing them to bank miles early in case later stages were canceled. Eventual men’s winner Kyle McCoy ran 91.2 kilometers that day, and women’s victor Jax Mariash ran 79.8 kilometers.

Filing out of the start of Stage 4 on Damoy Point to navigate the snow and glaciers of “The Last Desert.”

Mind Games

For racers, the difficulty of this format was not knowing how far they would be running each day. Eight or 12 hours on the course wasn’t unusual for a middle-of-the-pack runner, but postholing through the snow for an entire day made pacing difficult for leaders who were used to completing a stage in several hours.

While the terrain and aesthetics around the research stations was less than ideal, racers would soon appreciate the diversity the first loop offered. The remaining five stages never exceeded four kilometers due to limited land availability. Arguably the hardest day for competitors was Stage 3, a circling a 1.2-kilometer loop up and down a snow-covered, 200-foot hill—for nine hours.

Fortunately, racers had the otherworldly Antarctic beauty to distract them. Walls of rock and ice towered above them, the quiet punctuated by glaciers calving in the distance. Racers ran past beached seals and roosts of thousands of penguins, which curiously followed in their tracks.

The Plancius, basecamp for the 4Deserts race for 12 days. Racers would live on board and be shuttled to shore on Zodiacs each day.

Environmental Concerns

Maintaining the pristine Antarctic environment with such a large group created challenges as well. Tourist companies like Plancius operator Oceanwide Expeditions follow the guidelines of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), which was established to help protect one of the world’s least-visited environments. Competitors were required to vacuum out the clothes and bags they brought to shore and sterilize their boots each morning before going to shore to avoid introducing any non-native seeds or sediment to the continent.

Normally, food isn’t even allowed on shore, but 4Deserts was granted special permission, under specific IAATO restrictions. Natural foods including seeds, nuts, fruits and meat were explicitly banned, while processed foods like gels, powdered drinks and candy were allowed. Pit toilets were shuttled to shore with privacy walls built out of snow. Racers could only eat over a tarp near their drop bags at the start/finish of each loop, which was cleaned and sterilized every night. Any sort of contamination or littering by competitors meant disqualification.

Gearing up for a day of running over snow and ice.

Rules of Engagement

Rankings were determined by the total distance completed. Distance was counted on cards racers attached to themselves, punched by volunteers on each lap. When a competitor hit 250 kilometers, they had officially completed the race and were ranked in order that they finished. While most didn’t complete the full distance, anyone who lasted through the entire 40-plus hours of continuous racing without dropping or violating rules were considered finishers.

Ultimately, only eight of 61 competitors completed the full 250 kilometers. Men’s winner McCoy reached 250 kilometers halfway through Stage 5 and women’s winner Mariash—the only woman to complete the entire distance—finished halfway through Stage 6.

At the finish, on Half Moon Island, competitors celebrated more than simply overcoming the challenges of running in Antarctica. But no one had more reason to celebrate than Canadian competitor Karen Meades, who was married to her fiancé and race volunteer, Nick Hasbani, by the Plancius’ Russian captain at the finish line with all of her 4Desert and Plancius friends in attendance.

Some people might wonder why runners would choose to subject themselves to the hardships and discomfort of running in Antarctica. McCoy, grasping a rope for balance during the awards ceremony as the Plancius rocked back toward Argentina, said it best: “In a world where people chase assets for happiness, it’s unique experiences with others that truly make you happy. 4Deserts competitors live and understand this.”

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