The eternal ice around the South Pole covers 14 million square meters and is many meters thick. Until recently considered a hostile wilderness, the Antarctic now has a new attraction as the setting for one of the most outlandish events in the extreme running calendar: the Antarctic Ice Marathon.
It’s summer in Antarctica, which means sunshine, blue skies – and temperatures of around minus 20°C. Such are the conditions for the Antarctic Ice Marathon, the most southerly competitive run in the world. Cold as it is, this sounds like a mild summer’s day compared to the minus 98.6°C – measured by a thermal satellite in the middle of one bitter cold Antarctic winter night – which is the lowest temperature ever recorded in the Antarctic. So it’s a good thing that the Antarctic Ice Marathon is held in summer, because this three-day race has to be one of the craziest running events on the planet.
The marathon enjoys a particularly large cult following among runners who want to join the exclusive “7 Continents Marathon Club”. Only those who have completed marathons in all seven continents may apply for membership. And the Ice Marathon is one of only two official marathons that take place in Antarctica. 215 men and 62 women have joined the “7 Continents Marathon Club” so far, but in December this year – the height of summer in the southern hemisphere – athletes from all over the world will once again attempt to fulfill the admission criteria.
But that’s not the only thing that makes the Antarctic Ice Marathon so attractive. The event at the South Pole is also listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the most southerly run in the world, starting a mere 600 miles from the Pole. The event has been held regularly since 2006. This year the runners will embark on their adventure on December 12, when a private jet will fly them from Punta Arenas in Chile to Camp Union Glacier in the Antarctic, a roughly five-hour flight. After spending the night in special two-man tents, the following day will see them set out on what will probably be one of the most exciting challenges of their lives. Competitors can choose to run a half marathon, or a full marathon over the classic distance of 42,195 kilometers. At irregular intervals, there is also a 100-km ultramarathon, although none is scheduled at present.
A foot race in the Antarctic was thought to be impossible until a relatively short time ago; after all, the continent was only discovered on January 27, 1820 by the Russian explorer Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen. What had always been a huge blank space on maps of the world now became the White Continent, which is an apt name, because 98 percent of the world’s seventh continent is covered in a layer of ice that is up to four kilometers thick in places. With a surface area of 14 million square meters, Antarctica is larger than Australia and about 37 times the size of Germany.
The Antarctic Ice Marathon is staged on an icy plateau about 700 meters above sea level. In sub-zero temperatures of -10°C or lower, competitors need to wear special thermal clothing which allows them to perspire without the risk of hypothermia. Strong, icy winds are an additional challenge. Known as katabatic winds, these downdrafts are caused by the equalization of pressure between icefields and the warmer air above them, and can reach speeds of up to 300 kilometers per hour. In wind conditions like this it is impossible to predict how long it will take to complete the course, so competitors find themselves pushed to the limits year after year. Nobody expects record times at the Antarctic Ice Marathon. Nobody expects to see penguins or seals, either – because while both species live in Antarctica, the Ice Marathon is held too far south for competitors to catch sight of a single seal or penguin.
Incidentally, if running marathons on all seven continents is not enough for you, there is always the North Pole Marathon, literally poles apart from its southern counterpart. This crazy run at the North Pole is staged by the same organization, and the entry fee too is the same in both cases: between EUR 15,000 and 16,000 per person. For more impressions from the marathon at the South Pole, check out the official trailer for the 2017 event here: https://vimeo.com/245010372