Antarctic mornings are an experience. As soon as you poke your head out from under the thick, double-walled sleeping bag you need to put on your sunglasses. The constant daylight is so bright it penetrates even through the fabric of the tent.
The next step is to take your clothes, which you had carefully left next to the bed the night before, and place them in your sleeping bag for five minutes to warm them up enough to put on. Woollen base layer, long top and trousers, intermediate fleece layer and outer windbreaker. The sunscreen needs to go in the sleeping bag as well, to melt it from something as hard as candle wax to a pasty liquid soft enough to be applied. To venture outside without sunscreen would result in rapid snow- and sun-burn.
Then it’s off to the bathroom. Nothing stays on the continent, which must be kept pristine, so there are separate toilets for liquid and solid – an experience in coordination and planning if nothing else. Brushing teeth is similar to applying sunscreen. My toothpaste was as hard as a rock and needed to be chipped off then thawed out before being useable. And then coffee. The environment was so cold it was difficult to taste anything, but the coffee was liquid and warm, and that was enough.
It was 6am, and though at this time of year it was always daylight, the rest of the camp were sleeping, apart from the skeleton night crew. Nothing else for it but to go for an early morning run. As required, I registered myself out of camp with the staff, and went off to test the roughly 10km course, marked only with small blue flags set roughly 50 metres apart. Once again they clearly stressed the need to stay on the marked course. Some new crevasses had formed near the camp recently, and these were often hidden, covered by a thin layer of snowdrift.
After running a kilometre or so it started snowing, and the camp was left in a white out. Running was from marker to marker, and it was otherworldly.
Another few kilometres and the snowstorm cleared, opening up a sweeping panorama of the mountains, the vast icy plains between us, and not a soul to be seen in any direction. If it was a training run it was a failure – I couldn’t help myself but stop every few minutes just to look around and soak it up. And when that wasn’t enough I sat down and stared. And then I laid on my back in the snow and looked up.
The wait. The wait was difficult, more difficult than I had expected. We had to wait until the return flight was confirmed, as the Antarctic marathon had to begin as close to when the flight left Antarctica as possible. The moment that starting gun fires the clocks start ticking. From then we had seven days, 168 hours, to reach the finish line under the Harbour Bridge in Sydney, Australia. No time zones, no tricks. 168 hours from start to finish. 168 hours to travel between seven continents, fly over 55,000 kilometres, run seven marathons over 295 kilometres, and do it all without any mistakes or errors. There was no room to manoeuvre.
The waiting was difficult. The uncertainty was worse. If I knew how long it would take I could plan, adjust, countdown the remaining minutes and hours. But it could be a day or ... they tell me it could be a week. It all depended on the weather being safe enough to allow that IL-76 airplane to land again. That’s a whole lot of pressure – not just atmospheric. Never mind the race. No contact with the outside world should be invigorating, but it’s also very isolating. Responsibilities, family commitments, work? These aren’t subject to the restrictions of an Antarctic blizzard. Back in civilisation the beat marches on.
I tried to look at the wait as a positive. The first and probably only time I’ll ever be in Antarctica. Soak it up. Surrender to it. Enjoy it. But in reality that can only last so long. It’s only possible to be outside for short times before getting very cold, unless involved in vigorous activity. So most of the time is spent sitting, waiting, running over the same race scenarios with the same limited and incomplete information again and again, until you start questioning what is fact and what is hope.
Luckily the people I’d travelled with were a good bunch; conversation flowed easily. But it was good to know the gods still had a sense of humour, because as we sat bemoaning the never-ending wait, the director, Richard Donovan, knocked on my tent door.
“Race briefing at the main tent. Right now. Be dressed and ready to run.” He certainly was a man who didn’t waste words.
In five minutes everything changed. It was on. Plane’s on its way. The first marathon was about to begin.
And I suddenly wonder if, now that I’ve got what I wanted, I should have been more careful about what I wished for.
The march from the main tent to the starting line was a jumpy mix of anticipation, excitement, tension and nerves. We all lined up. We’d all trained for months. We’d prepared. We’d sacrificed time with our friends and our families. It all came down to this. It was now make or break. A multitude of thoughts went through my head in those brief moments.
Am I going to finish? All seven marathons? Can I do it in seven days? Will I get injured? How will I even make it through this first stage?
And somewhere, deep inside: Am I going to win?
Then, the warning gun fired. And suddenly time slowed down ...
Relentless (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers), by David Gethin, is in bookshops now, and available from www.vetopia.com.hk.