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South Pole Marathon

The inaugural race was a subzero struggle that ended in bitter arguments, threatened lawsuits and even a complaint to the FBI

By Austin Murphy

  Click for larger image Among Karnazes' many gripes was that his rivals wore snowshoes -- a possible advantage -- and reneged on a deal to run in a pack.  Kristoffer Erickson
Somehow they finished this frozen ordeal, this 26.2-mile slog across the icy, wind-raked bottom of the world. More amazing is the fact that Richard Donovan and Dean Karnazes got along for the three weeks leading up to the inaugural South Pole Marathon. You should see them now, with their claws out, swiping at one another like contestants in a small-town beauty pageant. Karnazes has informed Donovan (whom he calls "a creep") that he has reported him to the FBI and the State Department. Donovan speaks of his intention to sue Karnazes (who he says is "unhinged") and Adventure Network International (ANI), the outfit that put on the event and, Donovan insists, still owes him $22,000 for winning it.

The trash-talking, in this case, didn't start until after the Jan. 22 race. Don Kern, another competitor, awoke the following morning to the sound of an argument in a nearby tent. "Dean and Richard were going at it," he says.

"Dean was trying to throw Richard out of the tent," adds Brent Weigner, who had finished third behind Donovan, an Irishman, and Karnazes, a San Franciscan, in this first-of-its-kind marathon, held on a straight, flat course that ended near the orb-topped barber pole that protrudes from the snow, absurdly and wonderfully, at the geographic South Pole. It was behind that whimsical landmark that Kern and Karnazes had taken turns posing for nude photographs after the race. "In the pictures," says Kern, "the pole is very strategically placed."

Morale among the marathoners had been excellent in the days before the event, all things considered. The trip was organized by ANI, a Florida-based company specializing in Antarctic expeditions. It was expected to last 11 days but took 28. After waiting for four days in Punta Arenas, Chile, for a flight to Antarctica, the marathoners set up camp in Patriot Hills, some 650 miles north of the Pole, and were told, basically, to take a number. Before ANI's chartered DC-3 could take them to the start of the course, it had to fly a group of mountain climbers to the Vinson Massif; a group of meteorite collectors to Pecora, several hundred miles south of Patriot Hills; and a group of tourists -- so-called "Pole-taggers" -- to the South Pole itself.

So they waited in their tents and got to know one another. It didn't take long. Only five runners made it to the event. There was Ute Grüner, 56, a German grandmother whose athletic résumé includes a skiing expedition across Greenland. The 45-year-old Kern, a computer consultant from Martin, Mich., was a veteran of 67 marathons. Weigner, 52, who teaches geography to seventh-graders in Cheyenne, Wyo., is a seasoned ultramarathoner. Donovan, a 36-year-old economist from Galway, had decided to devote 2002 to running seven ultramarathons on seven continents, in hopes of raising money for two charities. He had the best chance, it seemed, of upsetting the favorite.

That was Karnazes, 38, a sculpted and handsome endurance athlete who works in business development for a large pharmaceutical company and supplements his income as a model for running magazines. He has completed numerous ultramarathons, including the Providian Relay, a 199-mile race in which he chose to forego relay partners. (Most teams split the running among 12 athletes.) He did not lack for confidence. After the first group training run outside Patriot Hills, Karnazes recalls, "I realized there would be no honor in racing against these guys. We weren't on the same level."

The group arrived at Patriot Hills on Jan. 8 expecting to depart for the South Pole in two days. Ferocious weather and the backlog of ANI clients combined to strand them at base camp for 10 days. Finally, on Jan. 17, the DC-3 deposited them at the Pole. The new plan: The runners would take three days to acclimate to the 12,000-foot altitude and the climate, which with daily highs around -13° was roughly 20° colder than Patriot Hills. They would run the marathon on Jan. 20.

God help them, they tried. Grüner and Kern, the slower runners, started an hour before the other three. Ninety minutes into the race Grüner and Kern hadn't even made it three miles in the thick fog. Postholing up to six inches into the snow with each step, they were looking at a 15-hour marathon. "We couldn't see [the course markers] 200 yards away," says race director Doug Stoup, "so I called the race."

At 6 p.m. the following evening -- the sun never sets at the Pole in January, so running at night posed no problem -- Donovan, Karnazes and Weigner were shuttled by snowmobile to the starting line. At a powwow in which Grüner and Kern agreed to run a half-marathon, the remaining runners made a pact. Today they differ on what, exactly, the pact was. Karnazes says they agreed to stick together and not compete. "The plan was, it would not be a race," he says.

Bull, say Weigner and Donovan. "Everybody agreed we would run together for most of the course, then race the last couple of miles to the finish," Weigner says. Even if they did agree, no one abided by the terms. Shivering at the starting line while he waited for Weigner and Donovan to strap on snowshoes, Karnazes said to Donovan, "I'm freezing, I'm gonna take off." And he did. The race was on.

The snowshoes that Donovan was scrambling to get into would be the source of controversy. They belonged to Karnazes, who had lent them to the Irishman. Had it been a race, Karnazes says, he wouldn't have provided Donovan with equipment that might have given him an advantage. Wearing running shoes, Karnazes was overtaken by Donovan six miles in and would cross the finish line in 9:18:55, with Weigner 70 seconds behind. By then Donovan, who had mild snow blindness, hypothermia and frostbite on his toes, had been finished for nearly 27 minutes. Says Donovan, "I think Dean suffered a mental blow. It wasn't in the script that some mucker from Ireland would come in ahead of him."

Though the initial ANI press release declared Donovan the winner, Stoup had made the official decision to create a runners division and a snowshoe division. This was significant because some competitors say they had been informed that they were racing for a $25,000 first-place prize -- no pittance when one considers that the entry fee was the same amount. ANI ultimately declared all five runners "winners" and awarded them $3,000 apiece.

The harsh words exchanged by Donovan and Karnazes at the Pole -- mostly over whether the event was a race -- were a mere appetizer for what followed. After Donovan expressed anger to one of Karnazes's sponsors over a first-person account of the race that Karnazes had written for a website, the Californian started playing hardball. In a letter dated Feb. 19 he informed Donovan, "I have become increasingly alarmed by the tone and nature of your threats and have contacted the U.S. State Department regarding the matter. At issue is a non-U.S. resident acting aggressively and potentially with malicious intent toward a U.S. citizen. A case number has been issued and a formal investigation is being conducted. My concern pertains to the safety and well-being of my family and associates given the increasing level of hostility expressed in recent documents generated by you."

What made the letter so bizarre, according to Donovan, is that he says he has never contacted, or attempted to contact, Karnazes, let alone anyone in his family. Which is not to say that Donovan's lawyers won't soon be in touch with Karnazes. "At this point I think I have to take legal action against Dean," he says. "He's basically alleged that I've made a terroristic threat." While he's at it, Donovan says, he plans to sue ANI for breaking its promise to pay the winner $25,000. (ANI says it was offering prizes of up to $25,000.)

Some wish Donovan and Karnazes would just chill. One would think, for example, that the State Department has better things to do than adjudicate a tiff between two endorphin addicts. Says Weigner, "Who cares? In the end we were just three nuts freezing our asses off, running to the South Pole."

Issue date: April 29, 2002

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