After the first race was done (and I spent a little time basking in that feeling) in South Africa. I focused on recovery. That was going to be a key component of this entire event. I changed into my recovery compression tights and grabbed my recovery protein/electrolyte drink. Cheered on a few of the others out running. But, didn’t spend too much time. Needed to recover. We headed back to the hotel. It was late. The race started around 7pm, so it was 11pm or so. On the walk back to the hotel, I realized that my stomach was not happy. A definite sign that I ran hard. Harder than I wanted for the first race. No restaurants were open, so we walked to a convenience store to grab some snacks. I felt nauseous at the mere thought of eating. But, I managed to get a little bit down when we got back to the room. Then I crashed. Hard. Fell asleep completely dressed and without even taking a shower!! I woke up a few hours later and forced myself to eat a bit more. Critical for recovery! Went back to bed. Needed more sleep. Also critical for recovery. And, taking advantage of having a bed while I could!
Woke up and took a shower, then headed to a local bakery to grab some snacks. The take-off for Antarctica had been delayed again, so had some time before the meet up to head to the airport. Stomach was still not happy, but I knew I needed to get in some calories. Repeated the entire bus loading, heading to the airport, and check-in for a flight to Antarctica. This time, however, we actually had a pilot!! And, a crew. So, we went through security and headed to our gate. Since we were not going to be on our cozy 757 plane (more about that later), but a Russian Ilyushin cargo plane, no one seemed to know how much food or water was going to be available. So, tried to eat something before boarding. The best non-meat option was a tomato and cheese sandwich. It was terrible. Really bad. One of the other WMCers asked how it was, noticing I only ate half. I said “Not good. It somehow managed to be stale and soggy.” For some reason, he opted not to try it.
Finally, it was time to board! Yay! Heading to Antarctica!! Through the boarding door and… onto a bus? Apparently, this is not uncommon for charter flights – you get bussed across the tarmac to the plane. So, we did. The plane itself was an adventure. Finding the right words to describe it is difficult, so I’ve used a picture (worth a thousand words). A definite benefit was the lack of standard air travel restrictions. Basically, as long as you had a seatbelt on at take-off and landing, you’re good. The most entertaining (frightening?) part of the “safety briefing”, and I use that phrase loosely, was the guy saying in case of need, the oxygen masks are in this cabinet as he pointed somewhere towards the front of the plane. I’m thinking, great, so if we need oxygen masks, we’re going to trample each other to get to them. The downside of this plane, other than having to use ear plugs, was lack of comfort. But, we were an innovative group. Folks got off the bench seats and laid coats on the floor to lay down and get some rest, using their bags as pillows. Me included.And after catching a nap on the plane, I woke up hungry and was able to actually eat without a stomach revolt. Just a bit of a gurgling. I started focusing on the upcoming race. Was thinking of a more “my way” race strategy (not all out, die, and then hold on). I was just a slight bit sore, which went away as soon as I started moving around. I was ready to race. Then, we landed and got on the ice. The continent was everything I expected. Overwhelming in its vastness and simplistic beauty. Snow and ice as far as the eye could see. An occasional rocky mountain peaking up from the shining whiteness. Breathtaking. But, windy. Windy does not adequately describe the conditions. Nor does super windy. Ridiculously, brutally windy is close. Sustained winds around 40 mph, with gusts over 50 mph. The temperature wasn’t terrible, in the mid-teens, I think. But, the windchill brought the “real feel” temp down to well below zero.
Some folks got a lift on a sled pulled by a snowmobile to the shelters. Some of us walked. The shelters were basically cargo containers fitted with some bunk beds, a sink, a urinal (apparently all the people stationed there are men), and a heater. So thankful for the heater! We had no idea how long until the start. We saw the sun starting to “set”. Now, this time of year, it never gets dark there, but there’s a dusk/dawn period that we were rapidly entering. I had no idea what to wear. I kept trying things and going outside to test. Put something on. Take something off. As the wait grew, it got colder. I realized any race strategy I had in my head was gone. This was going to be all about surviving these conditions! Finally, we were told that the extended wait was because they decided to change the course. They shortened the loop so that we weren't running into the wind for such a long way. So, instead of 6 loops, it would be 14. The course around the runway was marked with bamboo poles. At the ends of the longer stretches, there were sleds, so we didn’t run too far. It would have been easy to miss the turns with the blowing snow decreasing visibility and just keep running into the vast whiteness of the continent.
Finally, the RD came and said 30 minutes to race. We all started gearing up. We gathered between the containers as the men joined us. We all huddled together for warmth like a bunch of penguins. And, finally, the walk to the starting line. So cold. So windy. Snow blasting across the continent. Near white-out conditions at some points. Once we got to the start, thankfully, there was no ceremony. Just a ready, go! And, we were off. Kristina and a few of the guys were out front before I could even figure out my footing. I saw one of the men fall, and then Kristina. Both popped right back up and kept on going, but it gave me a head’s up to the blue ice.
Finding a good track to run was tough. Near the blue ice was decent traction with crunchy snow, but a wrong step and you're sliding on the ice. Further away less of a slip risk, but like running in loose sand. I did a mix of sand-like and near busting-ass running. Felt like I was going okay. Not great, but steadily getting through the miles. The headwind side seemed like forever. It was relentless. So glad I brought ski goggles! Near the 3rd or 4th mile (it was easy to lose track of space and time out there), I decided to check my pace. 10-something! Well... Not gonna run a sub four at that rate (sub-four here and sub-3:20 everywhere else for the record was my plan), but I literally could not imagine going any faster. So, I trudged on. Lap after lap.
I think I only drank twice. And I took two gels but didn't finish either of them. It was too much extra effort. I just wanted to keep plodding and get the suffering done. Kristina lapped me and I went into a brief mental tailspin. Not only were chances of the record time slipping, but any possibility of a win seemed to go right out the window. Blown across the vast Antarctica desert. That's okay. Laps are short and I only had two left, so time-wise may be not that far behind her. As I came up the headwind side, I looked across towards the finish and Kristina. Truly impressed and happy for her to have kicked so much ass. Overall winner! But, she didn't stop. That's when I realized I had miscounted and actually had two laps left after this one. My heart sank. I had just told myself only one more time thru this stretch of headwind. One more time through the drifting snow that was now mid-calf deep. But, nope. It was two more times. Oh well, still almost there. Just trudge through. I did. I finished. My slowest marathon. In, by far, the toughest conditions I'd ever experienced.
I kept thinking during, and after, the race that Kristina just wanted it more than me. Somewhere along the line, I became okay with that. All I've wanted for the past year was this win, this record. Here I was just two races in, conceding that she's mentally stronger. I said in the beginning of this that I learned that my mental game was my weakness. This was a breaking point for me, mentally. I was so physically miserable. And, really felt like I did all I could out there, only to finish with a 4:24. Twenty-four minutes behind my goal time. Everyone that came in after finishing said the same thing. It was miserable. The worst experience of their life. There were tears. Hugs. Congratulations for surviving. Lots of love in that container. And, the best mashed potatoes on the planet.
A good thing, I guess, after dealing with the trauma of Antarctica was that we had a long time to rest. Well, long for this type of an adventure. Once everyone finished and got changed, we were set to load up the plane. Back on the Ilyushin to head back to Cape Town. That’s about a 6h flight. Then we had another 18 or so hours from Cape Town to Perth, making this the biggest rest between two races. Nearly 30h! I took a short nap on the way back to South Africa. When I woke up, I started thinking. And doing math. (Uh-oh). I realized that if I could average 3:15 for the next five races, then I'll still break the record. My mental resolve was returning. Now, the big question was… Could I? If I can and Kristin runs 3:20s, we both break the existing record, but she still wins. Working together is the most likely way for us to both get what we want. So, I talked with Kristina. She said that a couple of guys were in on a 3:20 pace. So, we decided to work together until about halfway and then I’d try to gain a few minutes each race. That was the plan as we headed to race #3 in Australia.