Getting cold feet in this race doesn’t mean you’re scared. At the Baikal Ice Marathon in Siberia, runners can encounter temperatures as low as minus 50°C. The entire race is run on the frozen surface of Lake Baikal in Russia. So it will come as no surprise to find that the warm-up ceremony involves downing a shot of vodka. If you’re thinking of taking part in the next edition on March 1, 2020, you’d better get your skates on…
Look down for a moment – 1,600 meters down. That’s how deep the oldest freshwater lake on earth can be. The bitter-cold water looks black as pitch, eerie, unfathomable. Now, in the month of March, its icy coat is several meters thick. But wherever the wind has swept away the snow, the ice can be clear as glass and the eye can travel down as far as the daylight can penetrate. Most of the people moving across the ice in our story, however, will be looking not down but ahead, into a different kind of apparent infinity. This one, though, is white − glaring, blinding white. The remote horizon is pierced by the jagged outlines of mountain peaks. At the foot of the mountains the sunlight glistens off a streak of brilliant silver where the Trans-Siberian Railway reaches out toward the distant Urals. The scenery calls to mind a science-fiction movie, set on some faraway ice planet. And there’s a soundtrack: running shoes scrunching across snow; spikes burrowing into the ice. Welcome to the frozen wastes of Lake Baikal in Siberia, setting of the Baikal Ice Marathon, one of most extreme foot races anywhere on earth.
Every year in March, the runners set out on a 42.195-kilometer route over the frozen lake, with the thermometer showing well below minus 10°C and icy winds blowing. Lake Baikal is a majestic body of water, a gigantic rift lake. In Russia they call it “the Pearl of Siberia”. At 650 kilometers long and up to 82 kilometers wide, the lake is larger than Belgium and almost the size of South Carolina. Created some 25 million years ago, this is the oldest freshwater lake on Earth. It contains over 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water – enough to meet the needs of the entire population of the planet for 50 years.
When winter temperatures settle around their average of minus 20°C and the lake is frozen solid, flora and fauna retreat into hibernation mode and roads crisscross what in summer is water. From December to mid-May, SUVs, snowmobiles and mountain bikes traverse the icy routes that link the lakeside villages. And in March the marathon runners arrive, eager to take part an ultra-tough adventure. But it’s not a question of simply registering to take part, because the conditions are truly extreme. Seeing the temperature suddenly plunge to minus 50°C is no rarity at this time of year. So the organizers look long and hard at who they’re going to admit to their extreme event. Before would-be participants apply for the obligatory visa for Russia, they must first submit not only a medical certificate but also a track record of past performances that shows they are well equipped for the rigors of this race.
For those who pass muster in the Baikal casting process, it’s time to start training. Needless to say, in this case it’s no good jogging around the local park. You need pretty authentic real-world conditions. So if you’re going to hit peak form in Siberia in March, you’re going to need to spend the winter months somewhere with plenty of snow and frozen lakes, maybe after kicking off with regular sessions at the local ice rink in the fall. Along with physical fitness, it’s all about the right running gear as well. Several layers of thermal clothing and a winter face mask are a must, as are running spikes. With all the preparations completed, the journey to Moscow and from there to Irkutsk in Siberia can begin. From Irkutsk it’s a 70-kilometer bus ride to the small town of Listvyanka (pop.: 1,500) on the western banks of Lake Baikal. Listvyanka is base camp for this particular expedition and the race also finishes here. Runners have the best part of two days to acclimatize, run a few trial kilometers on the ice, and take a freezing dip in a hole in the ice carved out with power saws.
The event begins with a Siberian ceremony that involves pacifying the water gods with another kind of spirit: vodka. And this won’t be the last vodka that the runners encounter, either, because vodka is available at all the aid stations. Quite who is supposed to drink it, though, is anyone’s guess, because not many athletes choose to consume alcohol along the way. With the ceremony over, the runners are shuttled to the other side of the lake by hovercraft, minibus and snowmobile. Here, warmly wrapped up in multiple layers of clothing, they line up for the start. Your next opportunity is on March 1, 2020, so it’s time to brush up your Russian: “Tri, dva, odin” yells the starter into his megaphone (“three, two, one”) and the race through a wintry world of ice is on.