Twenty-one miles into The Last Marathon, the only race held in
Antarctica, I was beginning to believe that this would be my
Last Day. At mile three I had run up a glacier, but now I was
truly moving at a glacial pace. I was tired. Hungry. Cold. Ahead
I spotted one of the few spectators lining the barren course, a
fur seal, which according to my guidebook, Lonely Planet:
Antarctica, "can be a formidable opponent to rivals and human
visitors alike: Quite a few scientists bear the scars of
The day before, we had been given a warning by Laurie Dexter, a
historian aboard the Akademik Ioffe, one of two converted
Russian research vessels that served as both transport and
lodging for our group of 99 runners. "Nature has no feelings,"
he said. Dexter had told us of the ill-fated 1912 expedition to
reach the South Pole, led by British explorer Captain Robert
Falcon Scott. All five men in Scott's party died.
Nature has no feelings. Neither, after several unavoidable
traipses through icy streams, did my toes. I kept thinking of
the final, frostbitten words of the Scott expedition's Lawrence
Oates, who upon retiring one night prayed that he would not
awaken. Opening his eyes the next day, a disappointed Oates got
up and, stepping from the tent into a howling blizzard and
eternity, said to his companions, "I am just going outside and
may be some time."
"Antarctica," says Thom Gilligan, whose Boston-based Marathon
Tours & Travel arranged this event, "is the last place on earth
you'd want to stage a marathon."
January 26, 1998
Hence the name. Gilligan organized the first Last Marathon in
1995 (I was running in the second) as a manifest destiny of
sorts for marathoners. "I had said in a magazine interview that
my company had taken marathoners to every continent except
Antarctica," Gilligan recalls. "Then Marine Expeditions [a
Toronto-based eco-tourism business that operated the Ioffe and
its sister ship, the Akademik Vavilov] called and asked, 'Why
Why not, indeed? Antarctica provides hardy adventurers a unique
world to explore. No vegetation outside of lichens and mosses
exists. There are no indigenous land mammals. More humans attend
an Ohio State football game than have visited Antarctica in
"There's an absurdity in what we were trying to do," Michael
Collins, 33, who finished third in Ireland's 1996 marathon
national championships, would say after we had finished and were
heading home. "Thinking this race would come off as smoothly as
some weekend 10K--we were just hairless apes down there."
The course was mile after undulating mile of ankle-deep,
shoe-sucking mud interrupted only by a mile-and-a-half traverse
up and an equal distance down Collins Glacier and an occasional
stream traverse. Not surprisingly, The Last Marathon
participants were a veritable been-there-done-that honor
society. Michel Ribet, a genial 60-year-old Frenchman,
circumnavigated the globe with a crew of eight in 1973 in the
inaugural Whitbread Cup. His first marathon was on Mount
Everest, where the starting line was at 17,000 feet. Mike
Brandt, 56, and Knox White, 60, had summited Everest. Stefan
Schlett, 35, who the day after the race leaped from the bow of
the Vavilov into the subfreezing waters of the Southern Ocean,
had done a decatriathlon (10 triathlons in succession, without
stopping). Dexter, 57, the historian, once skied from Russia
over the North Pole to Canada. David Nicholson, 36, became
captain of the 1992 U.S. Olympic men's time-trials cycling team
only five years after taking up cycling.
Pat Rummerfield, 44, had made the most astonishing journey, 23
years in duration. In 1974 he was paralyzed in a car crash.
Rummerfield suffered four crushed cervical vertebrae and lay
motionless in a San Diego hospital bed for the next three
months. Eventually he wiggled a toe. Fourteen years later he
stood up and walked. In 1992 he completed the Ironman Triathlon
in 16:18:54. "I'm a walking quad[riplegic]," said the
indefatigable Rummerfield before the race. "I'm a walking
Getting there seemed simple--go to the bottom of the civilized
world, then head south--but the cost ranged from $4,000 to
$9,000, depending upon point of origin. On Feb. 14, 1997, our
group, which hailed from four continents and at least a dozen
nations, rendezvoused in Ushuaia, Argentina, the world's
southernmost city. From there we embarked on the Ioffe and
Vavilov for a two-day voyage due south, across the Drake
Passage. A nausea-inducing convergence of the Atlantic, Pacific
and Southern oceans, the Drake is so turbulent that one member
of our group dubbed it "the carbo unloading zone."
After we crossed into what's known as the Antarctic Convergence,
the sea became calmer but the water and air temperatures dropped
precipitously. Icebergs, magnificent spectacles up to 10 stories
tall, ominously floated past.
Race day was Feb. 17. Our ship, the Ioffe, was anchored 400
meters off King George Island, the site of scientific research
bases for Chile, China, Russia and Uruguay. The island, about 70
miles off the Antarctic Peninsula, was also the site of our
race. That we weren't running on the mainland left more than a
few of us out in the cold. The marathon had originally been
scheduled for the following day, but two weeks earlier Uruguayan
president Julio Maria Sanguinetti announced that he would tour
his country's base on Feb. 18. We would not be allowed on the
island with him.
Although these were Antarctica's dog days of summer,
temperatures were in the 20s and winds were gusting at up to 36
knots, hurling snow in horizontal volleys and creating ocean
swells 10 feet high. This created the problem of how to get the
runners onto the island. The plan was to load everyone into
Zodiacs, rubberized landing craft with outboard motors, but the
high seas made that risky. Prudently, but to the chagrin of the
43 competitors on our ship, the Ioffe crew decided to abort our
Disappointed, we retreated within the ship at 11:30 a.m.,
unaware that the crew of the Vavilov had landed its 56 runners.
Shortly after 12:30 p.m. our expedition leader, Andrew Prossin,
had us convene in the dining room. "Conditions are borderline,"
Prossin said, "but considering the importance of this event,
we're going to go ahead and try to get you ashore."
Try? The average person (unlike Schlett) could survive maybe two
minutes in this water. Scott Dvorak, 28, the swiftest runner on
either ship--he competed in the 5,000 meters at the 1996 U.S.
Olympic Trials--leaned over and whispered into my ear. "I think
I speak for everyone when I say, It isn't that important."
The runners from the Vavilov, meanwhile, were growing impatient.
They implored Gilligan to start the race, which he finally did.
"We had no idea if you'd ever join us," Collins, one of the
Vavilov-ferried runners, explained to me later. "We told Thom,
'Just let us start.'"
We at last set out in the Zodiacs, and at 2 p.m. we hit the
beach at King George Island. Few among us noticed as Collins and
Ray Brown, a 46-year-old New Zealander, crossed the finish line
hand in hand, tied for first in a time of 2:33:49. Gilligan
assembled us at the start/finish line and, as the race clock
turned to 2:45:00, yelled "Go!"
We charged up a road of chocolate pudding, relieved to finally
be racing. We laughed as the mud quickly made us one with the
dreary landscape. After three miles we reached the base of
Collins Glacier and began an invigorating, nearly vertical trek
upon a river of ice. Miraculously, no injuries occurred.
I crested the glacier and then turned to run/slide down. Near
the bottom, my vision dulled by the gray smear of sky above and
ice below, someone yelled, "Look out for the penguin!" My right
leg kicked forward, and I hurdled the gentoo penguin in my path,
barely clearing him.
At mile 17 I was in fourth place, running alongside John Bozung,
44, who had completed 57 marathons in the last 40 months.
"Pretty good for only your third marathon," he told me. "I need
you to pace me so that I can beat Clay [Shaw] in the masters
division. He beat me last summer at Nanisivik [the world's
northernmost marathon, held in Canada]."
Dvorak won our heat in 2:23:11, a time more than 10 minutes
faster than that of Brown and Collins. Schlett was fourth
overall at 2:55:40. I finished 16th in 3:28:00. Bozung (3:04:22)
crossed the line almost eight minutes ahead of his masters
rival, Shaw. Finally, nearly seven hours after our heat had
begun--6:48:10 to be exact--the Ioffe's horn sounded to herald
Rummerfield, the last finisher of The Last Marathon and,
perhaps, its most triumphant.
Rummerfield, who never stopped grinning for the rest of the
trip, definitely had the best attitude. By contrast, Brown and
Collins, though bettered by Dvorak, insisted that they be named
either cowinners or winners of The Last Marathon II (with
Dvorak's heat being, in effect, The Last Marathon III).
"This isn't even a certified race," said Gilligan. "What's the
At that point Collins uttered something about "taking legal
action" against Marathon Tours & Travel. Gilligan caved in. At
the awards ceremony on the deck of the Vavilov the following
day, Gilligan, in a carefully worded speech, recognized Brown,
Collins and Dvorak as "our top three finishers." Then he
gestured to all of us, all 99 who had started--and finished--his
marathon. In a breathtakingly beautiful harbor named Paradise,
Gilligan grandly bellowed, "Everyone's a winner!"
More than a few runners shuddered. Invoking that bromide seemed
hollow. But later, watching the sun set behind the ice-layered
cliffs as our ship turned north, I decided I'd have to agree