We didn’t go to the Antarctic to swim. Eighty-six of us, all experienced marathon runners, were there to take part in the very first full-distance marathon (26.2 miles) held on that frigid continent, an event organized by a Boston company called Marathon Tours and Travel. It would be a unique opportunity to bag a ‘first-ever’ marathon.
Getting there was not easy. First, we had to make our way to the Tierra del Fuego city of Ushaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world. Our host chartered two Russian, Kalingrad ice-strengthened ships to take us across the extremely rough Drake’s Passage to the Chilean Research Center on the Antarctic Peninsula, where the run would start. (My ship was the Akademik Yoffe.) I will not dwell on the effect of forty-foot waves during the crossing. Suffice it to say that there was a lot of mal de mer, with people leaning over the rail, not necessarily to see the sights. The best part of the trip was seeing several varieties of whales, many penguins, seals, sea lions and countless birds, an abundance of blessed creation.
Once we reached our destination, we got to run an extremely interesting marathon (actually twice around a half-marathon route). We started by running a mile or so across a newly-exposed boulder field, then up and over a glacier and down the other side, slogged our way along a stream of glacier melt-water, and stopped at aid stations run by Chinese, Russian and Polish research scientists. We did all of it twice to reach the full marathon distance. About half of the group threw in the towel after the first loop. The rest of us were elated to reach our goal of a historic first.
I could go on with a lot of detail about our run that day, but I promised to write an article about swimming.
On the return trip north, Natalia, the ship’s doctor, suggested that we make a stop at a nearby sunken volcano, Deception Island. Sounded like fun, so, yeah, as we approached, we could see thousands of Adelie penguins nested on the sea side of the island. Deception Island is C-shaped, with snow-streaked cliffs rising a few hundred feet along the perimeter, with a shallow, barely navigable opening on the east side. Two dozen of us went through the opening on zodiacs, and crossed a half-mile to a beach (really a flat jumble of rocks) on the north shore. “You are done running, my dear American friends, now you can enjoy a swim,” Natalia told us. Whaaat?
My friend Peter Butler and I looked at each other. We were members of the South End Swimming Club, and San Francisco Bay was our home pool. The temperature of the Bay rarely goes over 60 F. The water on Deception Island would be cold, but how cold? Chubby Natalia said “Swim where I swim, and don’t go near the bubbles.” She stripped down and entered the water au naturel. Neither of us had brought swim gear, but who gives a hang? “If she can do it, we can do it.” Peter and I followed Natalia’s example, stripped down and waded in. The water got deep quickly as the bottom dropped out from under us. It was cold, but not terribly cold. As we swam out a few yards, the good doctor showed up where bubbles were breaking the surface. “It is very hot in those places.” As we swam carefully along the surface, the water temperature from place to place swung from coldish to be-cautious hot, with the smell of sulfur all around us. Peter and I swam with the doctor for about twenty minutes, knowing that we would never have a chance to anything as crazy as this again: Snowmelt and fumaroles!
Not to be outdone, three other marathoners had bravely and daintily entered the water, staying close to the beach.
On shore we quickly dried off and Natalia produced a bottle of home-brew vodka to mark the occasion. Then we boarded our ships for the return crossing of Drake’s Passage, Ushuaia, and the long flights home. (We stopped in Rio on the north-bound return route, but that is another tale.)
For me, it was a very special occasion. Not only was I among the first few who had run a full marathon in the Antarctic. Now I had run a marathon on all seven continents, and to top it off I had also swum on all seven continents. Whoopee!