Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Last Desert Race Antartica

As I sit in my hotel, safely back in Ushuaia, Argentina, I can hardly believe that my memories are real, rather than just a crazy, cold white fantasy that I´ve conjured up in the far corners of my imagination. Have I really just returned from Antarctica...what I had spent the last few years looking forward to, and striving for? I have another scroll through the memory card of my camera to make certain one last time, that it really all happened...and wow, it really did!What an amazing trip it was!

It was filled with such highs and lows, as they normally are. But this trip, the crests seemed even higher and the troughs even lower...and believe me, I mean that literally as well as figuratively. I arrived in Ushuaia a few days early to meet up with my good friends and Team Trifecta teammates Mike Hull and Pete Wilson of Australia. And after a few nights of toasting to our past adventures and boosting our egos, I couldn´t remember if we were actually here for a race, or rather one big party! But we were brought back down to earth hard, when given the news that a hole was discovered on our boat's hull. But after some moments of reflection, I realized the sinking feeling in my gut was better than the sinking of the ship...and with luck on our side, the ship was fixed a day later. After hearing horror stories of the Drake Passage, I was armed with enough medication to sedate a small army, but this was one of the most calm crossings our expedition leader had ever experienced (at least on the way over that is). We were also treated with a truly rare sighting in the middle of the Drake, of humpback whales who actually seemed to delight in our visit to their neighborhood...and gave us all quite a dancing show! But other than than, it was a crossing filled with anticipation, trepidation, excitement...the checking and re-checking of gear, and trying to get in the proper mind-set for what we were preparing to do. I was sitting in my bunk when I heard the call come over the loud speaker... that land had been spotted. My heart skipped a beat, and I raced to the deck. The cold air hit me hard, but I looked to the left through the misty clouds and there it was, these magnificent white peaks bursting out of the slate gray water! It was then that I realized it wasn´t just a beautiful place, but a scary one as well...and to run on it?. .are we lunatics!

Our first stop was Culverville Island, and as we boarded the zodiacs to take us to shore, my stomach was twisting with the uncertainties of running in snow, and deep snow at that. It was a cool day, but with the sun blazing down and reflecting off the snow, I was actually sweating profusely...but it only took one quick blast of the cold Antarctica wind to remind me where we were. And if not the wind, then a quick glance at the sparkling iceberg filled bay, was a spectacular reminder of just what an amazing spot we were standing on. And I would have to say that it´s the first time in a race that the crowd cheering, were penguins....amazing! Our team ran steady as we always do, but only covered a mere 11.56K in 2:42 time, due to the incredible snow fall.

We didn´t get to enjoy the accomplishment of one day behind us for very long though. They decided to make another stop the same day in order to make up for the lost day, when the ship was in repair. So it was off to bed for a few hours of rest and then the next stop was Neko Harbour, on the mainland continent. It was another stunning view with our ship anchored amongst huge icebergs, hundreds of penguins, and even a big Leopard Seal was in the grand stands for the event (although he didn´t show any of his nasty reputation and slept through the whole stage). It was another tough run through deep snow and our shoes were soaking wet by the time we finished another 13.6K in 3:50 time.

We awoke for the 3rd stage at Pertermann Island, and our lifetime concerns seemed to get a more narrow focus, and this morning´s one was hoping that our shoes had dried overnight. And once again, not much goes as planned, because we were expecting another day of mild temps and wet, melting snow...but were instead greeted by much more typical Antarctic weather with a cold wind, blowing snow, and temps dipping to 15C. This would be more of a long cold slog for Team Trifecta as we basically just put our heads down and plodded forward, lifting them only to watch the many Adelie Penguins who enjoyed sharing our course, or running along, or across, or over...whether waddling on their two feet, or pushing on their stomachs, I was starting to view these little funny creatures, dressed in their finest tuxedos, as the true endurance heroes of the land!! We ended up waddling ourselves for 16.9K in just over 4.5 hrs.

Our 4th stage would be run at Dorian Bay, a cove on the northwest side of Wiencke Island. This was to be another slog in very deep snow. But after walking around the course for about half the stage, Team Trifecta came to realize it might even be easier to run it, so we pulled up our sleeves and kicked up the pace..and the snow. We managed to only cover 12.7K in just over 2:30, but we were still pleased that we made the decision to speed up, and were actually able to do so in the conditions, which none of us had ever run in before.

As it turned out, that would be the last stage and the race would be called off early. It was due to a truly a brutal storm that halted all efforts to find a safe landing for a final race stage. After failing to reach Deception Island we sailed for Half Moon Bay, but with the ship being battered by ferocious winds and monster waves, there was simply no question of risking our lives in the zodiacs. I remember being on the lower front deck of the ship and literally holding onto the railing for dear life as freezing waves crashing against the ship, spraying in my face. Fortunately, I stumbled back into the shelter of the boat, and about 30 seconds later, a monster wave swept over the boat, and I only learned about it from the others watching from the captain´s bridge...WOW, what an adventure!

More than anything, my Team Trifecta friends Mike and Pete and I, came into this Last Desert Race knowing that it was much more than a running race. It was a lifetime adventure and whether we completed the full 250K distance or not, we were going to be satisfied for engaging the unknown, fighting elements that were almost primeval, and coming out the other end just as close friends as when we started. We experienced things that we had only imagined before. We saw places with our own eyes that we had only seen in pictures before. We met many new friends and made many new amazing memories. The only thing that we were wrong about, was that we would end the trip just as close friends as when we began...because instead, we´re even closer!!!

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