To run a marathon... in Antarctica
By Michelle Johnston
“Within weeks of being struck by lightning and having surgery for cancer, I was trying to run,” Johnston says. “Running has always been an escape for me.” Johnston, who is studying for her doctorate in industrial and organizational psychology through Capella University in the Twin Cities, found out in October, 2006 that she had won a contest sponsored by the university and would be running the marathon in Antarctica four months later, in February. From penguins to glaciers, Johnston describes the race experience.
“Physically, I felt really prepared when I left in February. Mentally, I wasn’t sure.
I had never been to Antarctica and very few people ever have, so researching race and course conditions was hard to do. In my experience, marathon running is mind over matter; overcoming the physical pain is less difficult than maintaining the mental fortitude required to endure 26.2 miles. In a normal race, you have to run through pain and sometimes unpleasant weather conditions, but this was no ordinary race. I often wondered if the weather conditions might break me mentally.
I had a camera crew following my every move in the weeks prior to the race—in my house, with my kids, at my work (at DRI Consulting), and on the boat to Antarctica. It was an odd experience to go from a very private life to one that allowed everyone to see in. It wasn’t until I had a live interview on Channel 9 news that I realized how hard it was for me to answer such intimate questions about my life. By the time I had gotten onto the ship I had also been on Channel 11 and talked to the BBC, Reuters, and five different radio channels. While I learned quickly how to keep my response brief, deep down it was still very hard to talk about my past traumas.
The trip started with a stop in Buenos Aires, Argentina where we stayed for three days to get over our jet lag and get some short runs in. On day four we embarked on our journey to Antarctica. In Ushuaia, we boarded the Vovlov, a Russian ice breaker vessel that slowly made its way to the shores of Antarctica. The ship itself was nicer than anticipated, and I’ve never slept better. It was like being rocked to sleep every night. However, those rough waters that rocked me to sleep prevented me and others from running while aboard the ship. The five-day rest period had me concerned. I had never ‘rested’ so much prior to a race, but it ended up actually working to my advantage.
As race day approached I found myself becoming more and more anxious. The night before the race was relatively quiet—the dining room had an anxious quietness to it. We all ate our spaghetti dinner in virtual silence. That night I went to bed quite early, because of our 4 a.m. wake-up time. Even though our boat ride to the race didn’t embark until 7 a.m., we had a lot to do to prepare for the race. Most of us had to dress in many layers as well as pack extra clothing for after the race. Breakfast was served at 6 a.m. and then we all headed for the Zodiacs that would take us to the race. By the time we arrived on shore the winds had begun to pick up and a storm was coming in. Due to the severity of the weather conditions, the 9 a.m. race was moved up to 8:30. My fellow teammate and I were in the middle of a live interview with KARE 11 when we heard the whistle blow. We both quickly took off toward the starting line.
The race conditions quickly became severe. There were 40 mile per hour winds, snow and rain. Midway through the race the temperature dropped to 20 below zero. The winds were so strong that they pushed my 105-pound frame straight up, forcing me to almost stop running altogether. As time passed, the snow and ice covered the softball size rocks we ran on, making it hard not to twist an ankle. In fact, I twisted my ankle 17 times running over those mini boulders. The boulders weren’t the most difficult aspect of the race, as there were a multitude of streams and ponds to jump over. As I hopped around the ponds and streams, it struck me that this was more of an adventure race than a marathon. Nothing was paved, and there were no water stops and no support crews with water or first aid as you see in other domestic races. There were several research stations, but no one spoke English. Even if you were in need, help would be hard to find.
Despite the difficult terrain, penguins and seals entertained me on the sidelines, reminding me of exactly where I was. What other race would you ever see penguins and seals on the sidelines? While they all look cute, we learned that the seals are mean. You want to go and hug them, but you know they’ll bite you. The penguins were hysterical and reminded me a great deal of my kids. They’d waddle along with their penguin buddies all the while jabbing, squawking, and chasing each other until they had all fallen down. They proved to be a nice distraction from the physical pain I endured hiking a glacier—twice.
The figure eight course took us up a 1.3 mile long glacier that had a 17 percent grade. We had to run this course twice. In all honesty, I felt great physically, until I hit the glacier that second time. In fact, I’ve felt far worse in other marathons until I had to ‘stare down’ (or in this case up) the glacier for the second time. The first time up the glacier I had strained my hip, causing me mild pain—nothing I couldn’t tolerate. However, my second time up the glacier had me contemplating why I was doing this. It was difficult to maintain footing on glare ice and snow-covered spots that sometimes had melting holes hidden below, all while facing the severity of the wind and my fear of falling. It was in that moment I asked myself ‘who in their right mind does this stuff?’ And no sooner did the thought cross my mind than another athlete passed me and my competitive drive kicked in. There was no way that this race was going to get the best of me—I had worked too hard. After all, Winston Churchill once said, ‘never, never, never quit.’ Once I completed the glacier the second time I knew I was home free with only eight miles left. It felt so good because I knew I had just defeated the world’s hardest race. Eight miles was nothing compared to that glacier.
Even though I had overcome the glacier, I noticed during my last few miles that a few athletes were struggling. Knowing the weather conditions and potential for hypothermia, I decided to walk with a few individuals until I knew they were okay. Doing so knocked me out of the sixth place position that I had maintained for most of the race, but I didn’t care. I didn’t want this race to defeat me or anyone else for that matter—this wasn’t about time, it was about defying the odds. I ended up placing eleventh with a time of 5:33:59, about 2 hours off of where my pace times had been during training. Of the 200 runners that began the race I was one of the 155 that actually got to complete the full marathon. It was an amazing experience and I was somewhat surprised to have defied the odds once again. Even though this marathon would humble even the most seasoned runner, I had built it up to be much scarier than it was and I didn’t trust my own ability to defeat it. I did it and I didn’t even get eaten by a seal!
In reflection, Antarctica was probably the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen, and I say that after having traveled the world many times over. It was so incredibly peaceful. The glaciers, the wild life, the calm seas within the inlands of the Antarctic shores just took my breath away. There were moments of pure silence, no cars, beeping horns, guns firing, trains whistling—not even the sound of water sloshing. It was pure silence; untouched by man it was nature at its finest. No picture has ever done it justice.
Despite all the amazing experiences, I was relieved to get home to my kids and the quiet life I have in a small town. On occasion, people still come up to me and say ‘Congratulations. I read about you or saw you on TV.’ I’ve had a few individuals share their cancer stories with me and single mothers tell me I’ve inspired them. Even though I am a person who loves my privacy, it’s been nice to know that my struggles have served a greater purpose in providing hope to others. While I don’t think I’ll be running in Antarctica again anytime soon, I will forever carry with me my experiences of this amazing adventure, and the knowledge that I’ve given others hope.”