I have been thinking about interesting running topics lately. There are thousands of blogs on nutrition, training, pacing and recovery but I realised I’ve never read an article about how to run in Antarctica. I figured that sounded pretty interesting; and maybe it was something I could shed some light upon, given that I currently hold the world record for the fastest ever marathon on the continent.
There are two separate issues to discuss; what kit you’ll need and what to wear; and how to actually run a competitive marathon on a continent that’s nearly entirely covered by ice, and is one of the most hostile places on Earth. Running the marathon will be covered in part two of this post.
So what do you wear to run in one of the most hostile environments on the planet?
Surprisingly, you should wear very little. But there’s a long story behind that deceptively simple answer.
I’ll be the first to admit I wasn’t an experienced snow runner when I touched down not far from the South Pole on mainland Antarctica. In fact, I’d never even seen it snowing.
I landed with a group of about 25 others, most of whom were there to run as part of the World Marathon Challenge team, running seven marathons on seven continents in seven days. Antarctica was the first of the seven marathons.
Not too hot. Not too cold.
We had two days to prepare before the Antarctic marathon, mainly trying to figure out what we’d wear. And after the first minute of the pre-race briefing we realised we’d all got it completely wrong. “If you sweat, you will die”. Those were the first words spoken by the camp doctor during our pre-race briefing.
He explained that if we sweat, the moisture would be absorbed by the base layer shirt and fleecy top, which would almost instantaneously freeze rock hard in the Antarctic blizzard, forming a solid plate of ice that presses against the chest and saps body heat and energy.
“You will rapidly become hypothermic, and there’s nothing we can do.”
That was the secret to this particular race: heat management at the same time as cold management. Appropriate clothing became a careful balance between wearing enough to stay warm, and not wearing enough to get hot and then subsequently freeze. I needed to dress as lightly as I possibly could, then use body heat from running to keep warm. This meant a light vest, long-sleeved shirt, running shorts with a windbreaker top and trousers. It wasn’t much, especially in temperatures way below freezing. And here’s the rub: if I stopped running and lost that source of body heat I would freeze just as quickly as if I had been sweating. I had to stay in that ideal zone somewhere in the middle. Whilst running a competitive marathon.
“One more thing.” It turned out the doctor wasn’t finished. “Any exposed skin is a potential risk for frostbite. If it's numb you're in trouble. If it's white you need emergency attention. If it's black you've lost it. Oh, I nearly forgot to mention about snow blindness…”
So my most important piece of advice for running in Antarctica is to forget a lot of what you thought you knew about running in the cold and staying warm. Yes, you must protect yourself from the elements. But the last thing you want to do is go out running in the same puffy insulated gear you’d go skiing in. And layering is vital.
As a baselayer, I’d recommend a high quality but light long-sleeved merino wool technical shirt, or something similar, along with some good running shorts or tights.
Jacket and pants
As a next layer, I found a lightweight, weatherproof but breathable windcheater was perfect, along with similar running pants. I personally used an Inov-8 stormshell and Salomon Bonatti pants. These are both relatively form fitting, but are loose. The end result is a tight fitting baselayer, then a gap of air, and a more loose fitting weatherproof layer, providing insulation but not keeping in sweat and heat.
Gloves and hat
I also wore a pair of running gloves (Inov-8 racegloves) and a DeSoto Merino beanie, and these were both excellent but did get iced up towards the end of the race.
Shoes and socks
However, I did possibly make one mistake. I wore some thick woolly running socks and a pair of Salomon Speedcross Goretex shoes. Fantastic shoes, great for running and they did keep the weather out completely. But being Goretex they also were completely impermeable, and they kept the sweat in. The end result was a band of thick sweat forming at the toe tip of each shoe. Sweat which eventually froze into ice around the tips of my toes. My second toe on each foot used to be longer then my big toe, and poked out a little. Used to be, because during that run in Antarctica the ice in the shoetips enveloped the ends of those second toes, which became black and eventually fell off. I’m guessing that’s frostbite. But there’s always a bright side. My longer second toes always used to get blisters on long runs. Now they’re the same length as the big toes… no more blisters.
On saying that, I would recommend a trail shoe. Something that is relatively built up, has a well insulated sole, and lots of grip. But I’m not sure I’d wear Goretex again. I think I’d be better in shoes that were heavy-duty, but not sealed, and to wear one or even two pairs of socks.
I hope that helps with any cold-weather running. I used the same tips when running through the Alps in Austria and the same close-fitting base layer with slightly baggy outer layer strategy worked great there too, so I believe it’s applicable to most colder weather racing – adjusted as necessary depending on temperatures of course.
Please feel free to email me if you have any other questions, and stay tuned for the second half.. how to actually run that marathon to get your best possible time.