The Antarctic Ice Marathon

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The Antarctic Ice Marathon is the world’s coolest footrace.

Running a marathon is an arduous task.  Running on snow, in subzero temperatures, is even more challenging.  An individual competition with both Men’s and Women’s divisions, the Antarctic Ice Marathon is one of only two official running events within the Antarctic Circle.  It is the southernmost marathon on Earth.

The Antarctic Ice Marathon’s sister race is the North Pole Marathon, which is the northernmost marathon on the planet.

Antarctica is the coldest, windiest, highest and driest continent in the world.  The lowest temperature ever recorded on Earth – 138 [F] below zero – was in eastern Antarctica in 2010.  At this temperature, steel will shatter and water will explode into ice crystals.  At 15 times the size of the U.S., Antarctica is the world’s fifth largest continent.  Ninety-eight percent of the land mass is covered by a thick continental ice sheet.  The other two percent is barren rock.  Winds can reach 185 mph on Antarctica, and the continent contains 90 percent of the world’s ice.

Run each December, the Antarctic Ice Marathon takes place at 80th Degrees South, just a few hundred miles from the South Pole at the foot of the Ellsworth Mountains.  At an elevation of 2,300 feet above sea level, race-day temperatures can reach 13-below zero.  The underfoot terrain can be energy-sapping in places, though the course is groomed beforehand, so the snow is not deep.

The race draws an international field.  Competitors fly from around the globe into Santiago, the capital city of Chile.  From there, they make their way 1,360 miles south, to Punta Arenas, near the southern tip of South America.  The marathon is based at Union Glacier Camp, which is only accessible by air.  Athletes take a four-plus hour flight from Punta Arenas.  The wheeled IL-76 aircraft lands on a naturally occurring ice runway on the Union Glacier.  After deplaning, competitors climb aboard a specifically-adapted van for a five-mile trip to camp.

Systems at camp are solar powered.  Runners stay in double-walled sleeping tents that are well suited to Antarctic conditions.  Each tent houses two guests.  The dining tent, which is the heart of camp, has a full kitchen that provides hearty, fresh-cooked meals for the competitors.  Fresh fruits, vegetables, fish and meats are flown in regularly, as are a variety of beers and Chilean wines.

Entry fee to the world’s coolest marathon is €15,000.  The fee covers race entry, transfers to and from Punta Arenas Airport, and round-trip flights from Punta Arenas to Antarctica.  It also provides runners with meals and tented accommodations while in Antarctica, along with race photos, t-shirt, patches, a medal, and souvenirs.

The event was established by Richard Donovan, a world-class ultrarunner from Galway, Ireland.  In January 2002, Donovan became the first to complete the South Pole Marathon.  Three months later, he became the first person to finish the North Pole Marathon.  In 2009, Donovan set a record by running seven marathons on seven different continents in fewer than seven days.  Three years later – in February 2012 — he improved on his mark by running the 7 On 7 in under 120 hours.

A member of the Association of International Marathons and Distance Races, the Antarctic Ice Marathon consists of two events.  The primary competition is the 26.2-mile marathon, and athletes have the option to run half that distance – the 13.1-mile Frozen Continent Half Marathon — which commences at the same time as the marathon.

Weather conditions and terrain vary from one year to the next at the Ice Marathon.  Considered Antarctica’s entry in the exclusive 7 Continents Club, a set of marathons run on all seven continents, the race has produced champions.  In 2007, wheelchair competitor William Tan completed a marathon distance on the aircraft runaway.  Great Britain’s Fiona Oaks set the women’s marathon record of 4:20.02 in 2013.  That same year, Petr Vabrousek of the Czech Republic set the men’s mark of 3:34.47.

December is early summer in Antarctica when the continent is bathed in round-the-clock sunshine.  Ice Marathon competitors, many of whom train by running on treadmills in freezers, must be prepared for the elements.  Suggested racewear includes the following:  two base layers and one wind shell for the legs, with two base layers, two insulating layers and one wind shell with hood for the upper body.

Feet require one pair of sock liners, two pairs of wool socks, and toe warmers beneath running shoes.  Runners protect their hands with one pair of glove liners, with two pairs of gloves covered with mittens.  A facemask, thermal hat, neck gaiter, and ski goggles cover the face and head.

First contested in 2005, the 14th running of the world’s coolest footrace took place December 13, 2018.  Piotr Suchenia won the Men’s event in 3:49:18, while Roma Puisiene took the Women’s race in 5:03:32.  The 80th parallel south also hosts a frozen footrace each January, when cold weather adventurers compete in the Antarctic 100K ultrarace.

Race director Richard Donovan is a three-time winner of the 100K.  In 2015, Ireland’s Keith Whyte established the Men’s course record of 9:26.02.  Only four women have ever completed the 100K race, including Jennifer Cheung in 2017.  The event was not held in 2018.