Twenty-one miles into The Last Marathon, the only race held in Antarctica, I was beginning to believe that this would be my Last Day. At mile three I had run up a glacier, but now I was truly moving at a glacial pace. I was tired. Hungry. Cold. Ahead I spotted one of the few spectators lining the barren course, a fur seal, which according to my guidebook, Lonely Planet: Antarctica, "can be a formidable opponent to rivals and human visitors alike: Quite a few scientists bear the scars of injudicious approach."
The day before, we had been given a warning by Laurie Dexter, a historian aboard the Akademik Ioffe, one of two converted Russian research vessels that served as both transport and lodging for our group of 99 runners. "Nature has no feelings," he said. Dexter had told us of the ill-fated 1912 expedition to reach the South Pole, led by British explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott. All five men in Scott's party died.
Nature has no feelings. Neither, after several unavoidable traipses through icy streams, did my toes. I kept thinking of the final, frostbitten words of the Scott expedition's Lawrence Oates, who upon retiring one night prayed that he would not awaken. Opening his eyes the next day, a disappointed Oates got up and, stepping from the tent into a howling blizzard and eternity, said to his companions, "I am just going outside and may be some time."
" Antarctica," says Thorn Gilligan, whose Boston-based Marathon Tours & Travel arranged this event, "is the last place on earth you'd want to stage a marathon."
Hence the name. Gilligan organized the first Last Marathon in 1995 (I was running in the second) as a manifest destiny of sorts for marathoners. "I had said in a magazine interview that my company had taken marathoners to every continent except Antarctica," Gilligan recalls. "Then Marine Expeditions [a Toronto-based eco-tourism business that operated the Ioffe and its sister ship, the Akademik Vavilov] called and asked, 'Why not Antarctica?' "
Why not, indeed? Antarctica provides hardy adventurers a unique world to explore. No vegetation outside of lichens and mosses exists. There are no indigenous land mammals. More humans attend an Ohio State football game than have visited Antarctica in recorded history.
"There's an absurdity in what we were trying to do." Michael Collins, 33, who finished third in Ireland's 1996 marathon national championships, would say after we had finished and were heading home. "Thinking this race would come off as smoothly as some weekend 10K—we were just hairless apes down there."
The course was mile after undulating mile of ankle-deep, shoe-sucking mud interrupted only by a mile-and-a-half traverse up and an equal distance down Collins Glacier and an occasional stream traverse. Not surprisingly, The Last Marathon participants were a veritable been-there-done-that honor society. Michel Ribet, a genial 60-year-old Frenchman, circumnavigated the globe with a crew of eight in 1973 in the inaugural Whitbread Cup. His first marathon was on Mount Everest, where the starting line was at 17,000 feet. Mike Brandt, 56, and Knox White, 60, had summited Everest. Stefan Schlett, 35, who the day after the race leaped from the bow of the Vavilov into the sub-freezing waters of the Southern Ocean, had done a decatriathlon (10 triathlons in succession, without stopping). Dexter, 57, the historian, once skied from Russia over the North Pole to Canada. David Nicholson, 36, became captain of the 1992 U.S. Olympic men's time-trials cycling team only five years after taking up cycling.
Pat Rummerfield, 44, had made the most astonishing journey, 23 years in duration. In 1974 he was paralyzed in a car crash. Rummerfield suffered four crushed cervical vertebrae and lay motionless in a San Diego hospital bed for the next three months. Eventually he wiggled a toe. Fourteen years later he stood up and walked. In 1992 he completed the Ironman Triathlon in 16:18:54. "I'm a walking quad [riplegic]," said the indefatigable Rummerfield before the race. "I'm a walking miracle."
Getting there seemed simple—go to the bottom of the civilized world, then head south—but the cost ranged from $4,000 to $9,000, depending upon point of origin. On Feb. 14, 1997, our group, which hailed from four continents and at least a dozen nations, rendezvoused in Ushuaia, Argentina, the world's southernmost city. From there we embarked on the Ioffe and Vavilov for a two-day voyage due south, across the Drake Passage. A nausea-inducing convergence of the Atlantic, Pacific and Southern oceans, the Drake is so turbulent that one member of our group dubbed it "the carbo unloading zone."