Cold The inaugural South Pole Marathon was a subzero struggle that ended in bitter arguments, threatened lawsuits and even a complaint to the FBI

April 29, 2002
April 29, 2002

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April 29, 2002

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Cold The inaugural South Pole Marathon was a subzero struggle that ended in bitter arguments, threatened lawsuits and even a complaint to the FBI

Somehow they finished this frozen ordeal, this 26.2-mile slog
across the icy, wind-raked bottom of the world. More amazing is
the fact that Richard Donovan and Dean Karnazes got along for
the three weeks leading up to the inaugural South Pole Marathon.
You should see them now, with their claws out, swiping at one
another like contestants in a small-town beauty pageant.
Karnazes has informed Donovan (whom he calls "a creep") that he
has reported him to the FBI and the State Department. Donovan
speaks of his intention to sue Karnazes (who he says is
"unhinged") and Adventure Network International (ANI), the
outfit that put on the event and, Donovan insists, still owes
him $22,000 for winning it.

This is an article from the April 29, 2002 issue

The trash-talking, in this case, didn't start until after the
Jan. 22 race. Don Kern, another competitor, awoke the following
morning to the sound of an argument in a nearby tent. "Dean and
Richard were going at it," he says.

"Dean was trying to throw Richard out of the tent," adds Brent
Weigner, who had finished third behind Donovan, an Irishman, and
Karnazes, a San Franciscan, in this first-of-its-kind marathon,
held on a straight, flat course that ended near the orb-topped
barber pole that protrudes from the snow, absurdly and
wonderfully, at the geographic South Pole. It was behind that
whimsical landmark that Kern and Karnazes had taken turns posing
for nude photographs after the race. "In the pictures," says
Kern, "the pole is very strategically placed."

Morale among the marathoners had been excellent in the days
before the event, all things considered. The trip was organized
by ANI, a Florida-based company specializing in Antarctic
expeditions. It was expected to last 11 days but took 28. After
waiting for four days in Punta Arenas, Chile, for a flight to
Antarctica, the marathoners set up camp in Patriot Hills, some
650 miles north of the Pole, and were told, basically, to take a
number. Before ANI's chartered DC-3 could take them to the start
of the course, it had to fly a group of mountain climbers to the
Vinson Massif; a group of meteorite collectors to Pecora, several
hundred miles south of Patriot Hills; and a group of
tourists--so-called "Pole-taggers"--to the South Pole itself.

So they waited in their tents and got to know one another. It
didn't take long. Only five runners made it to the event. There
was Ute Gruner, 56, a German grandmother whose athletic resume
includes a skiing expedition across Greenland. The 45-year-old
Kern, a computer consultant from Martin, Mich., was a veteran of
67 marathons. Weigner, 52, who teaches geography to
seventh-graders in Cheyenne, Wyo., is a seasoned ultramarathoner.
Donovan, a 36-year-old economist from Galway, had decided to
devote 2002 to running seven ultramarathons on seven continents,
in hopes of raising money for two charities. He had the best
chance, it seemed, of upsetting the favorite.

That was Karnazes, 38, a sculpted and handsome endurance athlete
who works in business development for a large pharmaceutical
company and supplements his income as a model for running
magazines. He has completed numerous ultramarathons, including
the Providian Relay, a 199-mile race in which he chose to forego
relay partners. (Most teams split the running among 12 athletes.)
He did not lack for confidence. After the first group training
run outside Patriot Hills, Karnazes recalls, "I realized there
would be no honor in racing against these guys. We weren't on the
same level."

The group arrived at Patriot Hills on Jan. 8 expecting to depart
for the South Pole in two days. Ferocious weather and the
backlog of ANI clients combined to strand them at base camp for
10 days. Finally, on Jan. 17, the DC-3 deposited them at the
Pole. The new plan: The runners would take three days to
acclimate to the 12,000-foot altitude and the climate, which
with daily highs around -13[degrees] was roughly 20[degrees]
colder than Patriot Hills. They would run the marathon on Jan.

God help them, they tried. Gruner and Kern, the slower runners,
started an hour before the other three. Ninety minutes into the
race Gruner and Kern hadn't even made it three miles in the thick
fog. Postholing up to six inches into the snow with each step,
they were looking at a 15-hour marathon. "We couldn't see [the
course markers] 200 yards away," says race director Doug Stoup,
"so I called the race."

At 6 p.m. the following evening--the sun never sets at the Pole in
January, so running at night posed no problem--Donovan, Karnazes
and Weigner were shuttled by snowmobile to the starting line. At
a powwow in which Gruner and Kern agreed to run a half-marathon,
the remaining runners made a pact. Today they differ on what,
exactly, the pact was. Karnazes says they agreed to stick
together and not compete. "The plan was, it would not be a race,"
he says.

Bull, say Weigner and Donovan. "Everybody agreed we would run
together for most of the course, then race the last couple of
miles to the finish," Weigner says. Even if they did agree, no
one abided by the terms. Shivering at the starting line while he
waited for Weigner and Donovan to strap on snowshoes, Karnazes
said to Donovan, "I'm freezing, I'm gonna take off." And he did.
The race was on.

The snowshoes that Donovan was scrambling to get into would be
the source of controversy. They belonged to Karnazes, who had
lent them to the Irishman. Had it been a race, Karnazes says, he
wouldn't have provided Donovan with equipment that might have
given him an advantage. Wearing running shoes, Karnazes was
overtaken by Donovan six miles in and would cross the finish
line in 9:18:55, with Weigner 70 seconds behind. By then
Donovan, who had mild snow blindness, hypothermia and frostbite
on his toes, had been finished for nearly 27 minutes. Says
Donovan, "I think Dean suffered a mental blow. It wasn't in the
script that some mucker from Ireland would come in ahead of him."

Though the initial ANI press release declared Donovan the winner,
Stoup had made the official decision to create a runners division
and a snowshoe division. This was significant because some
competitors say they had been informed that they were racing for
a $25,000 first-place prize--no pittance when one considers that
the entry fee was the same amount. ANI ultimately declared all
five runners "winners" and awarded them $3,000 apiece.

The harsh words exchanged by Donovan and Karnazes at the
Pole--mostly over whether the event was a race--were a mere
appetizer for what followed. After Donovan expressed anger to one
of Karnazes's sponsors over a first-person account of the race
that Karnazes had written for a website, the Californian started
playing hardball. In a letter dated Feb. 19 he informed Donovan,
"I have become increasingly alarmed by the tone and nature of
your threats and have contacted the U.S. State Department
regarding the matter. At issue is a non-U.S. resident acting
aggressively and potentially with malicious intent toward a U.S.
citizen. A case number has been issued and a formal investigation
is being conducted. My concern pertains to the safety and
well-being of my family and associates given the increasing level
of hostility expressed in recent documents generated by you."

What made the letter so bizarre, according to Donovan, is that he
says he has never contacted, or attempted to contact, Karnazes,
let alone anyone in his family. Which is not to say that
Donovan's lawyers won't soon be in touch with Karnazes. "At this
point I think I have to take legal action against Dean," he says.
"He's basically alleged that I've made a terroristic threat."
While he's at it, Donovan says, he plans to sue ANI for breaking
its promise to pay the winner $25,000. (ANI says it was offering
prizes of up to $25,000.)

Some wish Donovan and Karnazes would just chill. One would think,
for example, that the State Department has better things to do
than adjudicate a tiff between two endorphin addicts. Says
Weigner, "Who cares? In the end we were just three nuts freezing
our asses off, running to the South Pole."

COLOR PHOTO: KRISTOFFER ERICKSON Dean's list Among Karnazes's many gripes was that his rivals wore snowshoes--a possible advantage--and reneged on a deal to run in a pack.COLOR PHOTO: KRISTOFFER ERICKSON Running on empty Slogging through snow half a foot deep, the runners needed some nine hours to complete the course.COLOR PHOTO: KRISTOFFER ERICKSON Chillin' Before the ugliness descended upon the event, the racers did enjoy some warm moments at their Patriot Hills base camp.
Says Karnazes, "I realized there would be no honor in racing
against these guys. We weren't on the same level."
"I think I have to take legal action," says Donovan. "Dean
basically alleged that I've made a terroristic threat."