Last Race on Earth

In a quest for the ultimate challenge, marathoners go the distance in Antarctica

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Approaching the glacier the second time, I was surprised to hear cheering. A dozen Uruguayans stood outside their base, waving their white-and-blue-striped flag and hooting wildly for each runner. Most of Antarctica's non-humans barely acknowledged us. A Weddell seal lounged on the nearby beach. A trio of Gentoo penguins waddled across the road by the Chilean base. But an Antarctic predatory shorebird known as a skua hovered overhead, perhaps making sure no runner came near its nest. Or perhaps waiting for one of us to collapse. Some runners were fading. Around mile 22, Annie Hotwagner was taking a break at a self-serve water stop. "I got vertigo, pounding across those rocks," she said. Hotwagner, 43, from Saugatuck, Michigan, was running to raise money for Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. We fell into a ragged rhythm together, walking uphill, then jogging downhill. With a mile left, she insisted I leave her for the finish.

I crossed the finish line at the Russian base with as much flourish as I could muster, spreading my arms out in triumph and smiling for the camera. "Hold on! The flash isn't working," a race official yelled as the photographer adjusted his equipment. "Let's do it again."

I hesitated. Attempting to re-create your finish in, say, the New York City Marathon—where 300 runners cross the line every minute—would likely result in disqualification or a fistfight. But heck, I thought to myself, this was Antarctica; the participants are stretched out for miles. I jogged back out a few feet on the course and sprinted across the line.

Same arm spread, same forced smile. Same failure to flash.

Alas, even though I don't have an official finish-line picture, the view from the top of the glacier at the bottom of the world is framed forever in my memory. The muddy shoes, I tossed.


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