Last Race on Earth

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

At the top of the glacier, I turned to look out over Maxwell Bay. Slivers of sunlight pierced the morning fog, revealing in the blue-green waters below the two ships that had taken us from the tip of South America, across the Drake Passage and into Antarctica. Snow-covered peaks zigzagged along the distant horizon. It was a spectacular sight, but one I didn't have time to savor. I had to run—22.2 more miles, to be precise.

I was four miles into the Last Marathon, a 26.2-mile footrace in Antarctica, known as the Last Place on Earth. Ice crunching underfoot, I started my descent, teetering down the steep glacier, part of a trail that cut across fields of rock, shallow streams and slushy snow. A layer of custard-thick mud, the result of an unusually warm Antarctic summer with temperatures in the 30s, covered much of the course.

The race, founded in 1995 by Thom Gilligan, a marathoner from Boston, takes place every other February on King George Island, about 2,000 miles from the South Pole. King George is known as the "capital" of the continent because of the nine international research stations strung along its 12-mile network of primitive roads. Some 600 scientists and support workers live here in the summer conducting meteorological and wildlife studies. About half that number stay through the winter, when temperatures can drop to 40 below zero.

The Russian base, a jumble of weathered prefab structures on five-foot stilts, was the race's staging area. With morning mist still hanging low, 212 runners—140 men and 72 women—charged into the ankle-deep mud to the scattered applause of race organizers and base workers. The participants, ranging in age from 18 to 71 years old and hailing from 15 countries, were competitive runners as well as casual joggers. Jay Foonberg, a 70-year-old runner from Beverly Hills, said all of them possessed the "three D's": desire, discipline and dementia: "You've got to be crazy to do it."

I'd done most of my training on a treadmill in my basement in suburban New York. While doing so, I watched "The Last Place on Earth," a BBC mini-series based on Roland Huntford's book about the 1911 race to the South Pole between British captain Robert Scott and Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. In that race, it should be noted, the guy who came in second—Scott—froze to death.

For the marathoners, this was the midpoint of a two-week tour that had started with 14 hours of flying, plus a two-day, 600-mile cruise aboard two converted Russian cold war spy ships—a total of nearly 7,000 miles (at a cost of about $5,000 per person). Why would anyone come so far to run another 26?

"When I was a little girl," said New Yorker Suzanne Bressler, 37, "I kept looking at this big white spot at the bottom of the globe. Why were there no cities there? Who lives there? Ever since, I've wanted to come to Antarctica." Dr. Rohit Vasa, a neonatal specialist from Chicago, who has run 48 marathons, says his goal is to complete a half or full marathon on all seven continents. (He has three more to go.) "In life, everyone is capable of doing more," said Vasa. "I believe in testing that."

William Tan of Singapore knows a lot about testing. Tan, a neuroscientist, contracted polio at age 2, and he was attempting, at 48, to become the first wheelchair athlete to compete in the Last Marathon. "I was so excited," he said after the race. "Then...boom! It was mud and it got worse and worse." With his wheels mired in muck, it took him 15 minutes just to cover the first 300 yards.

Audible groans emerged from the pack of lead runners as they hit the quagmire. Within a mile, my new silver-and-black running shoes were covered with chocolate-colored goo. At the top of the glacier, we circled a cluster of orange flags—the turnaround point. Descending in a barely controlled free fall, we soon found ourselves in a field of scree—a patch of loose rock common in Antarctica. Most of us gingerly picked our way across the slippery stretch, but Dan Powell, an Ironman triathlete from San Diego, turned his left ankle in the insidious mixture. "I'd never dropped out of a race before and I wasn't going to do it here," Powell said. It took him nearly eight hours to finish.

The Antarctica course was what runners call a "double out and back," meaning we covered the same treacherous ground—two 13.1-mile loops—twice. When I passed Tan on my second loop, his scholarly mien had turned into a rictus of teeth-baring determination; his thick black gloves were shredded from pushing the studded snow tires he had mounted on his wheelchair. He had brought an ax to hack his way up the glacier, but the ice was too soft, and race officials rerouted him off the slope and into the impassable bog. "I was defeated by global warming," Tan would later joke. He completed a half marathon.

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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