Of the more than 7 billion people in the world, only 134 of them have run a formal marathon on every continent, including one within the Antarctic Circle on Antarctica. Hastings resident Lisa Richardson aims to be one of them, and she just recently put the hardest of the seven behind her.
Richardson finished the Antarctic Ice Marathon, the only official marathon held within the Antarctic Circle, on Nov. 20.
It was a trip that fell into place just weeks beforehand. A runner since 2011, the race was recommended to her by one of last year’s participants, she said. On Oct. 30, she found out there was a late opening, and by Nov. 1, she had booked a flight to Santiago, Chile; from there she would fly to Punta Arenas, the last stop before flying to Union Glacier, Antarctica.
It was a chance she just couldn’t pass up, she said, even though it wasn’t something she had ever planned or hoped to do. But if she had passed up the chance, she would have regretted it the rest of her life, she said. Plus, Union Glacier only gets 350 to 450 visitors each year, and now Richardson can say she was one of them.
Another deciding factor in her decision to make the trip was her conditioning. Although she hadn’t trained specifically for this event, she had just run a marathon on Oct. 18.
“So I knew I had the mileage in my legs,” she said.
Still, it was a challenging run, for multiple reasons. Antarctica is the windiest, coldest and driest continent in the world, and despite it being summer there now, it lived up to its reputation. The wind was brutal, Richardson said, and some days was strong enough to push her as she was walking. Although the wind let up for the race itself, it was still cold (-17 Celsius or about 1 degree Fahrenheit at the start of the race) and the open ice and snow made for white-out conditions.
Footing was also a little less than ideal. The course covered a 13.1 mile loop on ice and soft snow, and it seemed to Richardson that each runner fell at least once.
“It was like running on sand,” Richardson said.
At the end of the first loop, runners had a chance to change into dry clothes and decide if they would continue on to complete the full marathon or stop with the half marathon. By the time Richardson finished her first loop, she was facing some major equipment malfunctions that could have ended her race. Her balaclava and buff had frozen solid, and she couldn’t breathe through them. Plus, her ski goggles kept fogging up, making it even harder to see.
By that time, though, the top two runners had already finished the race. The second-place finisher was Luke Wigman, a British athlete who suffered a serious injury to his leg while serving in Afghanistan and went on to become a medal-winning marathon runner. Wigman checked in on Richardson and offered her his own spare gear.
“Honestly, he saved my race,” she said.
Richardson finished the full marathon in 8 hours and 54 minutes, about three and a half hours over her normal time.
“It was much harder than I expected,” she said.
More than a run
Richardson spent a total of five days in Antarctica. Of that, less than nine hours were spent racing. The best part of the trip, she said, was the people she befriended.
“At the end of the whole experience, it wasn’t even the marathon that was a big deal,” she said. “It was the relationships.”
There were about 55 runners this year, representing 22 countries. And, for the majority of the time they were there, they were interacting and getting to know each other. Richardson said she now has friends from all around the world.
Staying on the glacier for five days, however, wasn’t part of the plan. Richardson said the original schedule had the runners flying into Union Glacier on Nov. 18 and leaving Nov. 21. But weather delayed both the incoming and outgoing flights. The planes need a 12-hour window of clear weather to make the trip safely, she explained. But the organization running the operation, Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions, made sure its visitors had enough to stay busy. They put on lectures and camp tours, offered yoga sessions and documentary films about Antarctica and Union Glacier. There was a small library, and they even offered a 10k running course for those who wanted to keep their legs moving.
The runners spent quite a bit of time together, too, getting to know each other, playing board games and other activities. Richardson said she tried to learn a little Thai and Polish from her new friends as well.
And although they spent the time there in tents, the living in camp was easy, Richardson said. There was a chef there who prepared all their meals, and they had access to warm showers. It was great, she said, aside from sleeping in a polar sleeping bag and dealing with 24-hour daylight, where the sun simply rolled a big circle around the sky.
“I don’t think anything prepares you for that,” she said.
Back to Minnesota
Now that Richardson is back home in Hastings, she’s already planning her next marathon. When she found out the Antarctic Ice Marathon was the only marathon event actually located within the Antarctic Circle, she realized she would have to set herself a new goal: run a marathon on each continent. Thanks to her new Polish friend, she’s already got her sights set on a marathon in Poland next year to check her third continent, Europe, off the list.
Her hope, she said, is to run at least one intercontinental marathon each year.
And if she got the chance to go back to run in Antarctica, she would do it in a heartbeat.
“I can’t say enough from beginning to end about how well it was done,” she said.
It’s an experience she would recommend to anybody.