Antarctica is, in the most literal sense, an unbelievable place. There’s so much here you’ve never seen before, you hardly believe your eyes as each new sight unfolds before them. You blink to be sure it’s all real.
From the desolate caldera—an enormous, collapsed volcano—filled by the sea within Deception Island to the humpback whales of Wilhelmina Bay. From the penguin colonies at Neko Harbor to the iceberg graveyard at Pléneau Bay. Everywhere I look, there’s something I could have never dreamed I’d see in this lifetime.
For many, that’s just reality. Despite a growing interest from tourists, Antarctica is still one of the most remote locations on Earth. Few people will ever experience it outside a book or documentary. And, yet, here I stand—one lucky SOB.
When I arrive, I’m not prepared for the beauty in front of me. To clarify, you do not simply arrive at Antarctica. You become more and more aware of it as you approach it.
Landing on the continent is like opening a series of increasingly impressive gifts. First, the birds. Then, the icebergs. Next, the islands. The penguins swimming all around. The whales in the distance. Finally, you land on the continent. In this moment, you believe it very well may be the peak of your existence.
The following is a feeble attempt to convey the continent’s greatness.
Just Arriving Is An Adventure Itself
As I sit in the empty Dallas airport waiting for my connection to Santiago, I have no idea just what’s in store for me. Here I am amidst another convoluted itinerary pieced together at the last minute with frequent flyer miles. I count the connections:
Travel hacking saves the day again, but nearly at the expense of my sanity. Over the course of this trip, I’ll spend 42 hours flying, 33 hours sitting around in airports, and 72 hours crossing the Drake Passage—occasionally the roughest sea in the world (as would be proven to us on the return trip).
Sometimes, during particularly difficult travel, I complain to myself, “Is this really worth it?” Then, I remind myself I’m flying around the world for free, headed to one of the most impressive places on the planet. I ought to be a little more grateful for my adventure.
Imagining myself at a desk watching the days roll by as I dream of being on a plane to anywhere else quickly fixes such sour attitudes.
And, before I know it, I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Ushuaia—the southernmost city in the world—sipping a latte and sucking up every MB of wifi I can before it’s time to embark across the sea. I’ll be completely offline for 10 days with no connection to the outside world. Better make sure the bot that posts funny things on Twitter for me is working.
What will it be like? I haven’t been away from the web this long since the day it showed up in my middle school computer lab. The question is persistent, but unimportant. The sea calls. Adventure calls. Antarctica calls.
The Riskologist Classic: Antarctic Marathon On A Ship
Since deciding one day in 2010 that I’d run a marathon on every continent, I vaguely wondered how I’d eventually manage to do Antarctica.
There are, in fact, two organized marathons on the continent. They’re each unbelievably expensive and, from the looks of it, kind of boring. I prefer to run fun and quirky marathons like on a wildlife reserve or the Great Wall of China.
Nevertheless, I’m six continents in and a promise is a promise. I’m ready to pay up and finish the job. But, as synchronicity would have it, I’m offered the opportunity to come aboard an expedition ship—the M/V Sea Explorer—as the guest of the expedition team at a special rate just before departure.
The wheels start turning. Maybe I could run a solo marathon? Maybe they could drop me off and I could disappear into the wilderness for four hours. Maybe I could run it on the ship! Yes, that’s it! Maybe I could run my Antarctic marathon on the ship!
I carefully word the email to my contact: “Hey, I’d love to come along. How about running a marathon on the ship while we’re down there?” I decide to call this the Riskologist Classic. Feel free to run your own when you visit!
I’m ready for an unequivocal “no.” Instead, I hear back, “Um, I guess that could work.”
Sweet! I’m in!
This is my specialty. I thrive in the grey area of “maybe” that comes from asking for ridiculous things and squeaking by when the answer isn’t yes, but isn’t no, either. The strategy? Once you get a “soft yes” as I like to call it, you quit asking questions. Then, you show up ready to do your thing acting like it was always part of the plan from the beginning.
In this case, I’m on a ship with a crew of adventurous people. When I tell them what I have in mind, no one flinches. “Fun idea!” I’m told. These are my kind of people.
Antarctic Marathon: Achievement Unlocked!
So this is how I find myself, three days into an expedition cruise—in the Bransfield Straight just off the Antarctic Peninsula—running laps around a ship that’s tossing me about like a rag doll.
I’ve got it all figured out. It’s 170 meters around the 4th deck of the ship—247 laps to complete a marathon. The path is relatively clear. I use two different iPhone apps to keep impeccable timing, and I have a counter to tick off each lap so one never gets missed or skipped.
And I have three witnesses lined up. When you’re running a marathon on your own, it helps to find ways to legitimize it. No one’s calling shenanigans on this run!
But when conditions get so bad I’m nearly going overboard every lap, I’m pulled in by Jamie, our expedition leader to “take a break” after just 112 laps.
I’m a pretty patient guy, but when I’m in Antarctica running the last of 7 marathons on every continent and I’m being told to stop—the right decision, by the way—it leaves me a little antsy.
Rather than focus on failing at the end of my mission, I drink some hot chocolate and replay the memory of the waddling penguins I saw yesterday.
Before I know it, we’re anchored in a calm harbor and I’m back out on the deck, ticking off laps. The intense wind helps improve my time by pushing me at a near sprint down one side of the ship. 5 hours and 9 minutes after starting, my Antarctic marathon comes to an end.
Just before crossing the finish line, the ship’s photographer, Amelia, snaps this shot:
I did it! I ran a marathon on every continent! At this moment, I’m not sure how to feel. To be honest I wasn’t sure what feelings to expect leading up to this moment, either. All my energy to date has been directed at just getting to the end with little thought of how to handle myself once it’s done. Now it’s over. I’m not ready for this.
I saunter into the club where everyone is now awake and hanging out after a rough morning on the sea. They all clap. A few gentlemen come up to shake my hand. A few others promise a drink in the bar tonight. Everyone wants to know how it feels to be done. I don’t have an answer that will satisfy. “Pretty good,” I tiredly shrug, not sure what else to say.
The feelings don’t kick in for the rest of the trip. It never sinks in that I’m done. I carry on as if nothing has changed. More on this in a future episode.
Most people come to Antarctica to see icebergs and wildlife. I came to run a marathon. We’re just three days into our expedition, and it’s already over.
Hmm, what to do now? I guess I’ll check out some penguins.
Antarctica: A Photo Tour
The following is brief selection of my favorite shots from our many stops along the Antarctic Peninsula. Photos above were taken by me (except where noted). Photos below were taken by Amelia McGoldrick from Dayclicker Photo Tours.