Antarctica Part 2: How to run in the loneliest place on Earth.
I say the loneliest place, but in truth I had a fantastic time when I visited Antarctica, and made some friendships that will hopefully be lifelong. It was an experience I’ll never forget. But it is a lonely place.
We were on Union Glacier, about 600 miles from the South Pole. No permanent structures, no trees, no polar bears or other animals (that’s the Arctic), and no birds, unless they’ve got really, really lost. Running in Antarctica is, for the most parts, just you and the elements.
Which means special preparation is required, as we discussed in part 1. However, it also means that the running technique and marathon strategy are different from your average race.
As I mentioned in part 1 of this series, the most daunting part of the run for me was thinking about those words from the camp doctor prior to the race: “If you sweat, you will die.”
What he meant by this was that if you sweat in the freezing, bone dry environment of Antarctica, the sweat will freeze almost instantly. This frozen sweat then sticks to the skin, causing rapid cooling and risking possibly fatal hypothermia.
In addition to choosing the right clothing the right running strategy is required. The greater the energy output the higher the metabolic rate, and hence the greater body heat generation, which, if it surpasses a certain threshold, will cause the body to sweat. To cut it short, this means that running too hard will make you hot, then sweat, then freeze.
On the flip side, you need to keep a reasonable level of metabolic activity to maintain body temperatures in the sub-zero temperatures of the Antarctic continent. If you stop running there’s no way your fairly thin running clothes will keep you warm, and you’ll end up freezing just as fast, if not faster, than if you’re covered in a layer of frozen sweat.
What pace should I run?
So it’s a balance. And it’s a balance that varies with every person. You should estimate your running speed and pace based on your fitness, usual training environment and general sweat patterns. To give a general guide, I’d suggest you run about 15% slower than your average marathon pace. Slow this down a little more, say to 20% if you’re a larger runner or training in a hot climate (and hence acclimatised to sweat earlier). If you’re a cold-climate runner or are of lean build you can run a little faster, around 10% slower than average marathon pace works well.
However, this figure does vary considerably, and if possible I’d try to get out for a couple of training runs before race day, either in Antarctica (the flight will usually arrive a couple of days earlier to allow acclimatisation), or in a similar cold climate.
The other major factor is to remember you’re running on snow, which definitely saps some foot energy with every strike. The Antarctic snow is fairly hard-packed, and the logistics team usually runs a grader over the track a few days before to compress and flatten the snow, which packs it even further. As a general guide, I’d say it felt pretty similar to running on very short grass, so it is more taxing than an average road marathon.
The course is generally pretty flat, but it’s not completely flat and this can be difficult to judge when everything is white. For a while out there I thought I was developing snow blindness – I could only see white. Then I realised there only was white. It makes distances and elevations difficult to accurately estimate, and you need to take this into account.
Pacing and nutrition
The general marathon rules of steady, even pacing and keeping on top of nutrition apply, but these rules are pretty much the same for every marathon, and there’s no need for me to repeat them here. Except for one small proviso. Everything I said about not sweating and holding yourself back can be forgotten in the last 5km. You’re not going to sweat enough in that time to ice up, so if you’re chasing someone down, go for it. But as soon as you hit the finish line you need to go straight to the changing room, get out of those race clothes and have a warm shower. Don’t make the mistake I made and wait around celebrating the finish, only to start violently shivering from cold after about ten minutes. Have a shower, get some warm clothes on, have something to eat and recover, and then wander back to the finish line to celebrate with the other runners.
I hope that helps, and as always, if you have any questions please let me know. Good luck out there, it’s a once in a lifetime experience.