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Crazy birds. Giant glaciers. Drinking mud: I ran a marathon in Antarctica

By Jennifer PurdieJuly 18, 2015

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Antarctica Francis M. Ginter/Getty Images

I live with wanderlust, searching for opportunities to escape the beige cubicle and add color to my otherwise neutral world. When I heard of an adventure to explore one of the most remote regions on earth in a challenging fashion, I whipped out my credit card and scanned the Internet for flight deals. I soon met with other marathon runners in Argentina and set sail via Russian ships to the frozen abyss of Antarctica, where we would complete a footrace spanning 26.2 miles. 

Two days after leaving South America, the ship hit the Drake Passage, long considered to be among the roughest waters in the world. I woke in the middle of the night to find chairs flying across the room as the ship tilted 45 degrees. We strapped ourselves into our beds with actual bed seatbelts and popped Dramamine until we arrived at the bottom of the world for the marathon.

On race day, we were greeted by snow and fog and my body shook from nerves and tension. I had completed marathons before, but never in dangerous terrain and against soul-shocking elements. We carried our own gear and nutrition, such as electrolyte drinks and water, and could not deposit any trash along the course as to not disrupt the ecosystem. 

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The race directors forbade us from listening to music as we ran: We needed to stay alert due to the presence of attacking seabirds called skuas — creatures designed to poke anything and everyone in their paths. We were advised to run with an arm over our head and a water bottle in hand. Apparently, the birds would land on the highest part of our bodies and this way we could fight back using the bottle.

The race directors forbade us from listening to music as we ran: We needed to stay alert due to the presence of attacking seabirds

I set off on the marathon course and sure enough, within a couple of miles, I found the skuas ready to pounce. I ran with my arm over my head until I reached a glacier to climb. Attempting to summit this block of ice was comparable to hiking up an ice skating rink. I was concerned I would break a leg, or worse, not finish the race. Some faster runners grabbed my hand and helped me up. The higher we went in elevation, the worse the blizzard-like conditions we faced. The race director drove to the top of the glacier, parked his ATV and flipped the headlights on, allowing for runners to “follow the light” — something I’ve heard you do after you die, which felt ironic at this moment. The glacier lasted from mile three to mile six, leaving one runner with a broken wrist and another with a broken hip. 

On mile 14, I fell into a mud pit and couldn’t get out. Having watched plenty of episodes of Man vs. Wild on the Discovery Channel, I knew that if you get trapped in a mud pit, similar to quicksand, you must use a stick to hoist yourself out. Chest-deep in mud, I couldn’t reach anything, but I was still carrying a water bottle. I used it as leverage to heave myself out, but ended up drinking mud for the rest of the race.

During the last five miles of the marathon, it rained sideways. I grew up in Seattle, and thought I already experienced every type of rainfall possible, but I’d never seen it pour like this. 

In the end, my efforts paid off when I crossed the finish line and collapsed on the snow-covered ground. I felt delirious yet euphoric to have accomplished this difficult goal. 

The day after the race, our captain sailed our ship into a breathtaking Artic setting with iridescent, aquamarine glaciers and icebergs. The white snow mixed with the water below, casting a turquoise coloring as bright as the blues found in a Crayola crayon box. I’d recommend Antarctica to anyone, even those with adventure trepidation.

Jennifer Purdie finishing the race in Antarctica
Jennifer Purdie finishing the race in Antarctica