Guest Columnist and avid marathoner, Gurmeet Soni Bhalla talks about her experience of running the most challenging snow marathon in the South Pole.
It’s nearly 10 years to this day that I decided to take up running in my quest for a healthier life. Little did I know that it will take me to the coldest, driest, southernmost continent on earth – Antarctica.
Running all over the world as run-vacations with my family, I always wondered how running in Antarctica would be. I imagined it would be super hard to get to and obviously very difficult to run. It was a chance meeting with the Antarctic race director, Richard Donovan in Berlin (just after my Berlin marathon 2017) that got me interested and I was persistent enough to give it a shot.
My husband and I went ahead and registered for the event. As luck would have it, someone dropped out and we (Arunjot, my husband and I), joined a group of 60 brave souls from 16 countries to run the Antarctic Ice Marathon on 13 December 2018.
Laying the foundation block.
2018 brought out the ultra-runner in me – I ran multiple distances beyond the standard FM of 42.2K that included the famous 90K run at Comrades, South Africa. I trained with a group called Ashva which has incredible and motivated runners and their energy is infectious. Under the aegis of coach Brijesh Gajera, we ran 50K, 60K, 80K and 90k all in a year.
My new goal now was the Antarctic ice marathon and I had to be prepared. I faced a big stumbling block – “how do you simulate snow and ice and run in -20C temperatures while living in this salubrious weather of +20C?”. I did a bit of research and found out that some people run on treadmills in freezers to simulate those temperatures. Clearly, this was not possible for me so I tried something else – train myself to stay on my feet for longer durations as this run would not be a quick one considering the formidable underfoot conditions and the windchill of katabatic winds. I drew inspiration from my training of ultra-marathons to push myself on.
Getting the right gear – an accomplishment by itself.
When you run in such extreme conditions, it is important to wear the right gear. To that end, the organisers had given us a comprehensive list of the gear we needed. Obviously, some of the gear is very specialized and hard to find but somehow I managed to get what I needed for the run.
The advice I received was:
- 3 layers on the upper body mainly base layer, fleece layer, and wind shell.
- For the lower body, a base layer and a wind shell.
- Protection for the hands was glove liners and water proof gloves
- Base layer of socks and woollen socks for the feet
- Eye protection at all times with ski glasses/goggles since exposure of eyes to sun-kissed snow could cause snow blindness.
- Balaclava for the face, a thermal cap for the head and buff for the neck.
Shoes though were the hardest to find and that made me quite nervous. It had to be trail shoes which had to be waterproof and a size bigger to accommodate a double layer of socks. For someone like me who runs in a singlet and shorts, this was a tall order to adorn alien clothes on an alien terrain and run a race!
In the end, we managed to procure most of our gear from Decathlon and Columbia right here in India. For the remaining gear, we bought them at the base camp in Punta Arenas, Chile.
Getting to Union Glacier – a journey of a lifetime.
After a long-winded journey that involved crossing 3 continents to reach our base camp at Punta Arenas, Chile, we were flown a day ahead of the schedule (to avoid any unfavourable weather conditions) in a chartered plane to Union Glacier which was 80 degrees and few hundred miles from the South Pole at the foot of Ellsworth Mountains.
A blue icy runaway with bitter winds greeted us. It made breathing difficult due to the cold air despite the altitude being only 700 meters. We had a trial run to check our gear a couple of hours after the landing only to realise that we were overdressed and the warm insulated clothes made us sweat. This made the body cool down drastically as the sweat dried and we risked hypothermia. A precarious balance of not too hot or too cold had to be maintained. Eventually, I ended up borrowing someone’s wind jacket for the race.
As if the gear and climatic conditions were not daunting enough, we now had to figure out our hydration. This got slightly tricky since pre-race day hydration had to be just adequate for us not to rush to the loo at the periphery of the residential tents. Everything about this race was new and all the running rules broken! If anyone told me don’t try anything new on the race day, I would laugh.
Cometh the day. A dream realized. A story for a lifetime.
So here we were – all those days of training, sacrifices made, dreams in our eyes all in front of us as we woke up on 13th December 2018.
While we got ready for the run of our life, the weather decided to act up – the sun hid behind the clouds, visibility dropped and it threatened to snow. The 21K course that had been cleared and prepared had to be changed to a shorter loop of 10.5K which meant 4 loops of the course to keep things contained keeping the bad weather in mind. The staff of the camp dressed up the start line with flags of all countries participating and adorned themselves in fancy dresses to keep the mood and morale of the participants upbeat.
Richard Parks, yesteryear’s professional rugby player flagged off the race and off we went, 60 of us trudging through snow and ice, gingerly keeping one foot ahead of the other, finding our own rhythm. The pristine and hushed surroundings were mesmerising. No birds, no penguins as the camp run by ALE ( Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions) was way far into the south of mainland and had no crowd support too. That meant we had to rely upon ourselves to pull us through this adventure that we had all signed up for. The aid stations were at intervals of 5k which meant 2 stations -one at the start and the other mid-way. However, there was only one toilet and that was at the start which meant at a distance of 10.5K only. If one needed to attend nature’s call, one had to do so in a plastic bag provided and would later have to pick it up and dispose it in the disposal area. (Little anecdote: all the waste from Antarctica is carried back to the mainland in containers so as to keep the environment as pristine as is humanly possible).
I took the first loop slow and steady, warming up and finding my rhythm. The warm water and chocolates at the aid station were truly a treat and I depended less on my gels as they were hard to get to with gloved hands. My second loop became more arduous since it started to snow and the ground turned softer and hard to navigate. By the time I turned in for the third loop, the visibility was poor and windchill had increased. The underfoot conditions had gotten worse with so many runners repeatedly traversing the course turning it slushy and uneven. As much as I wanted to enjoy this blanket of whiteness and silence, it got way too cold. Runners braved very harsh climatic conditions in this run as was we got to know later from the race organisers. By the time I hit my final loop, I started to overtake quite a few runners as they resorted to walking as the calves and glutes were sore due to pounding the uneven surface. Runners cheered and motivated each other reminding each other of the beer that awaited them at the finish line. Winds picked up and the breath froze on the face. The last 3K was walk – run as my energy had dissipated.
As I crossed the finish line carrying the tricolour in my hand, Richard smiled and gave me the news – I was the third female
finisher and I was ecstatic!
I have always considered podiums to be incidental but this one was special as I could put my country on the chart of 14th edition of the Antarctic Ice Marathon.
This run truly was the run of a lifetime and everything from preparation, to getting there to the run itself was a fantastic experience and a story that I will pass on to many of my family and friends.