The Great Wall Antarctic Marathon: penguins, icebergs and the coolest race you’ll ever run

In this race organised by a Chinese company, the fun starts with a crossing of the rough Drake Passage, followed by a run through the Antarctic Peninsula and ends with a three-day cruise

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 September, 2017, 5:48pm
UPDATED : Friday, 22 September, 2017, 12:38pm

Mao Zedong once said: “He who has never been to the Great Wall, is not a true man.” Swap “been to” to “run on”, and his one-liner still reflects the fascination the Wall holds – running events on the Great Wall sell out fast, attended mainly by foreigners. Early next year, yet another Great Wall run will be added to the roster, but its finish line is 18,000 kilometres away from Beijing, at China’s oldest Antarctic research station – called The Great Wall.

Marathons have been held in Antarctica in the past, but The Great Wall Antarctic Marathon slated for February is different. It is an international event organised outside China by a Chinese company.

The Antarctic Peninsula projects, like a rhino horn, from the circular body of the Southern Continent, and King George Island, where the marathon is held, lies a few miles from the peninsula’s northern tip. Serving as the gateway to the interior, it is, by Antarctic standards, warm and densely inhabited – bases of 11 nations have been built here, including China’s.

The stations are connected by a gravel road, the racecourse for the Great Wall run, where traffic consists mainly of strolling penguins. In addition to marathons, the island also hosts a sports event – King George Island Olympics, an annual contest between the staff from research bases.

“Of course, we [Chinese] would always win at table tennis. Football was decided between the Chileans and the Uruguayans, and the Russians would win volleyball and running,” says Liu Fubin, who goes by his English name Alex Liu.

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The former meteorologist once spent 13 months in one stretch at the Great Wall Station. The boom in Chinese tourism to the polar regions made Liu switch from monitoring sea ice to organising Antarctic tours, and this well-travelled, mild-mannered fluent English speaker is quietly confident that his Chinese organisation can deliver, pleasing Westerners as well as Chinese.

“Chinese are now officially the number two in Antarctic visitor numbers. We specialise in polar tourism, but our mother company has great experience in organising large running events. Running tourism is very big now in China. Chinese runners travel all over the world to take part in races and many of them do polar marathons,” says Liu.

The prospect of looking after foreign customers, does not faze him either: “We will have international as well as Chinese staff. All our Chinese staff speak very good English and have spent a lot of time working abroad. Some speak Spanish fluently. We also work together with a Chilean company that organises extreme races.”

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Liu says staff from the nearby bases see the race as a welcome break in their routine, as it will attract fresh faces and offer a fun activity.

“The plan is to start at the Uruguayan Artigas Station and finish at The Great Wall,” Liu explains. “The runners will also go through the Russian Bellingshausen Station with its beautiful Orthodox church, and the Chilean Frei Station.”

This event is not just a run between Antarctic bases spotting penguins – the competitors meet up in the port of Ushuaia in Argentina and cross the infamously rough Drake Passage to Antarctica by ship. After the 42km marathon (or half marathon or 7km fun run) the programme continues with a three-day cruise of the Antarctic Peninsula, complete with zodiac tours spotting whales and cruising around icebergs, before returning to Ushuaia.

“This is not a hard-core sports event,” says Liu. “But it is a special experience. You cross the Drake Channel, and before you go on an Antarctic cruise, you run a marathon, and finish at The Great Wall. The runners can visit the Great Wall station and see a bit of China in Antarctica, learn a little about our Antarctic Chinese life, and about the life of all scientists here. I think this is unique. And you get to feel Antarctica ... with your feet.”

Wayfaring weekend warriors keen to participate in the inaugural event can visit tripolers.com. Despite Liu’s assurances that marathon staff speak good English, the website is in Chinese, only. Google translator helps.

Six tips to help dispel the chill over the distance

Many Hongkongers dislike and fear the cold, but it is safer and more pleasant to run in the cold than in the oppressive heat and humidity of a Hong Kong summer. Nathan Montague, one of the UK’s top ultra-distance runners and coach, gives valuable advice for surviving while running in frigid temperatures.

1. Wear thin layers and do not overdress. Your body generates heat as you run, so you can strip off layers if you start sweating. Sweat-soaked clothing will make you feel chilly quickly once you slow down or stop.

2. Drink, even though you may not feel thirsty. You will be losing water through respiration and sweating just as you would under normal conditions. Take electrolytes, too.

3. Pay attention to your hands and feet. In the cold, you will be getting less blood supply to your extremities as most of it will be diverted to your core organs. For this reason, a seemingly minor such as a blister can quickly become infected. If you feel excessively cold or numb in your hands or feet, deal with it as soon as possible. A good rule of thumb: if you find yourself thinking about a problem three times, fix it.

4. Remember, food will freeze and may become inedible. This applies to some gels, for example. Energy bars, however, will freeze into biscuits and remain edible. Freeze samples of the food you plan to bring and see whether you can still eat it.

5. Keep your water warm. Wear water bottles close to your body, and if you have a hydration bag in your backpack, insulate it.

6. Monitor your effort – the more you put in, the more you will sweat and the more exposure to cold you will suffer when you stop.