Antarctica is the coldest, windiest, and driest continent on the earth. It is the southernmost continent and site of the South Pole, and is a virtually uninhabited, ice-covered landmass. Very little snow or rain falls on the continent, but because it is so cold, the small amount of precipitation that does fall does not melt. This ice can be more than 4 km thick in some places and it flows off the continent and creates floating ice shelves over the ocean creating ice burgs.
So let’s take all of that information, and now drop in a self-supported ultra-running race into the mix. The 4 Deserts: The Last Desert was the last stop on the mission to become the first woman in the world to complete the Grand Slam Plus in what is known as the coldest desert in the World. Due to my current ranking in the series up to this race, I would just need to finish to become the 2016 Female World Champion. To top it off if I won, I would become the 2nd female ever to win all 4 Deserts races in a fiscal year. Last but certainly not least, if I completed all 250k of the race, I would become the 3rd woman in history to do so. No pressure right?
The format at the The Last Desert: Antarctica was quite different than the previous 4 races due to time and weather. Instead of a point to point course, this race format included a bit more luxury, balanced with very difficult running. Each day, we would sail to a different location in Antarctica and run a loop until the time was up, or weather shut us down. We had a total of 6 days to attempt to fulfill running all 250k. To finish, you must push through each day that we are able to run and not drop out. Completing the entire 250k was the icing on the cake and very difficult to accomplish.
For The Last Desert race, the first challenge was the journey to Antarctica. This was an epic feat with the risk of getting sea sick and exhausted for the first day of running ahead that was known to be an attempt at 100k. The trip starts with flights from Salt Lake to Buenos Aires and then down to Ushuaia. Ushuaia is the Southernmost tip of Argentina and it is where we will meet our home for the next 10 days aboard the MV Plancius ship with Oceanic Expeditions. Aboard the ship are around 120 people that are either racing, race crew, ship crew or tourists.
The boat ride down to Antarctica includes a 48-hour journey out of the Beagle Channel and into the Drake Passage. The infamous Drake Passage extends around 600 miles through Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands and is known as the roughest seas in the world. Right off the bat, you are prepared for the ship to roll and to prepare to deal with how to not get seasick. Patches, pills, bracelets and any type of system you can create are in order to get through the journey. In our case, the crew called the way down the “Drake Lake.” This means although we all felt like we were going to puke, that it was a calm journey down.
The sea settled and day one arrived. The first day was an 11.4k loop and we had 13 hours of running. In this format, we still carried around 6 kilos on our backs of required race equipment and gear to prepare for any condition that would come our way. We also had a drop bag at land with extra supplies and equipment in case we were stranded and could not get back to the boat. We would run until the time was up, or weather stopped us. The weather sat around freezing and went out of being sunny, windy, and a small amount of sleet. There were various research facilities on this Island that made us entertainment for those from all over the world that were facilitating research there. I could not imagine what it would be like to actually live in a container like facility for months. We also had to abide by strict IAATO rules while on land. This meant that our format to eat, and go to the bathroom was only allowed at the one check point per loop. We could eat on a tarp to ensure that absolutely no crumbs or foreign food would touch Antarctic soil. Additionally, a small port-o-john was brought to land for us to relive ourselves. On day 1, this meant that you had to make it 11.4k of running in sloshy snow and mud before you could take a bite. Sometimes during the day, this loop was around 1.5 hours to complete. Your feet would slip and slide on the terrain due to the warm temperature that was creating soft snow. By the end of the day, I was already feeling broken and exhausted and had dealt with a throbbing IT band issue for the last 3 hours of the day. Left in tears as the first woman by a lead of 4.5k with 79.8k complete in 12 hours, I was in exhaustion and worried about how I would survive day 2.
Day 2 came quickly and before we knew it we had sailed to a new location called Deception Island and it was a 2.9k loop. For 8 hours, we ran loops in both directions. The snow was slippery, sloshy and wet, and created extremely wet and cold feet. Each step took twice as much energy to push your feet through the snow and deal with the conditions. I ran with poles this day to try to alleviate the strain on my IT band and let it rest more. My main goal was to maintain and continue to push the lead for the ladies. With another exhausting day in the books and already 127.8k of the 250k complete, I spent the night with throbbing legs and disbelief of how we would keep going day after day. Already, we were all wishing for a huge storm to come to cancel a day of running. But low and behold, we were having the best weather in history.
Day 3 was torture. 1.5k loops! 47 loops, and almost 7 thousand feet of climbing over 9 hours. This already totals 30 hours of running in 3 days! The loop went up and down a tiny section of the main land in Antarctica. Up and down for monotonous zig zags. The weather was nice and then turned to sleet in the middle of the day that caused my feet to get frostnip and I felt slightly hypothermic. I had to go into my drop bag and change out everything in order to survive the weather shift as well as eat some freeze-dried Mac and Cheese to warm up.
Stage 4 came upon us with an extra-long rest and on Thanksgiving. The whole concept turns when you now start to calculate how many kilometers you have and how many are left. Once you hit 250k, you are finished. I began the day at 193.6k. The loop was 3.8k on a glacier in Dorian Bay. There were so many penguins and they looked so happy in their element. Some walking around, others sliding on their bellies, some swimming and others snuggled together standing. The stage was my favorite yet. After taking the first 3.8k to pack down the snow, it was the most runnable course yet. The top half of the course was windy and a bit of a concern if they would cancel. Having experience in those conditions I just bundled up and enjoyed the running track. To finish in the 7 hours we had that day, I would need to do 57kms. I was mentally focused to pick off as many as I could to make the next day a short day. Low and behold as I started to come in to loop 4 there was a line of folks with their drop bags approaching the zodiac boat =(. The wind was too dangerous to continue and the day was cut short. I am not sure if it was a Thanksgiving gift to get to eat more and nap a lot from the universe, but in the end the rest and Thanksgiving celebrations with my fellow Americans was worth it. So therefore the new total to reach 250k sat at 41.2k.
Day 5 came quickly and we had 6 hours to run and the loop was 3.1k and all in was 5,800 feet of climbing. The weather here is 32F / 0C so the snow is not the easiest to navigate through. Each day for the past three days, we tend to spend the first loop or two just packing out the track a bit. Today I was honored to run the first 4 loops with the male leader Kyle, which were his last 4 loops. It was really exciting to see him come to the finish line as the first male. All day I pushed and pushed and never let up to get every kilometer I could. I never let up and only stopped twice on the tarp to eat a Snickers bar. Absolutely everything hurt. Sunburnt lips and face, swollen feet, strained tendons, strained achilles, tight and sore legs that throb all night long, and then for some reason my body always decides to have another period. We all just waddle around the boat like penguins. Our bodies are completely wrecked and I really don’t know how we get up each day to do it all over again. There are so many moments that you push snooze and toss and turn in utter exhaustion not sure how you will get up. But the will and might of the goals of making history, inspiring the masses and pushing to raise funds and awareness for the LymeLight Foundation soon make you fly out of bed and get after it.
Day 6 and 4k was all that was left to make history on Half Moon Bay. The day would give runners 2.5 hours to the finish the race. With a 2.4k loop, I would have to run two loops to finish the 250k and finally rest. What looked like easy terrain due to it being flat, became one of the hardest loops. The snow had a crust layer that your feet would break through and fall in and the pain was excruciating on your legs as it smashed against them. It was 42 minutes of relentless steps, but all of those steps would lead on a sunny day to the completion of a 10.5 month journey to become the female champion, and make history for women.
In total the 250k took 40 relentless hours with 24k feet of climbing over the 6 stages. All I can say is that the revised format and running in extremely hard conditions with a pack leads to A LOT more time on our feet pushing through the elements and eventually get to 250k in 6 days. So roughly it added 10 more hours of time on your feet running in snow, slush, ice, mud, and rocks. It is by far the hardest race I have ever done mentally and physically in my life. Every day, there were nagging pains and you were constantly afraid that you were going to have an injury. I have never felt so wrecked and exhausted in my life. With all of the difficulty, some days you didn’t even want to get out of bed. You had to dig deep and just do it.
For the trip home, we were not as lucky with the Drake Passage. 48 more hours of 20 foot waves and the boat rolling all over to get us home. We were so excited to reach the Beagle Channel and finally enjoy the completion of a big year together.
At the completion of the race series, I am so glad to achieve every goal I set out for!
- I officially am the first woman ever to compete the Grand Slam Plus…wow!
- Being crowned the 2016 4 Deserts Female Champion
- Raising right under 18k for the LymeLight Foundation
- Becoming the 2nd woman ever and 3rd individual to win all 4 of the 4 Deserts races in a fiscal year.
- Being the 3rd woman in history to finish 250k in The Last Desert.
The journey is one I will never forget. It has made me strong, mighty and deal with adversity with pride and strength.