chilling feet

chilling feet

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

South Pole Running and a Weird Decision

Most of this post was sent to Memphis Runners Track Club for their monthly newsletter. The beginning is an addition:

There is a fun tradition I think I have mentioned on the blog before. The South Pole was originally discovered and achieved (meaning they made it there) by two groups of men in the early 1900's.  This meant that these men hiked/sledded/pulled/climbed the nearly 850 miles via their own power and some animal power (one team more than the other).

At any rate, to encourage exercise while we are here during the winter at the South Pole, there is a "Back to McMurdo" challenge. A person keeps track of the mileage they have done on the treadmill/outside/on the rowing machine/on the bike/etc. There is a conversion chart for those who are not running or walking, so one can easily determine how many miles to add to the chart. The chart is a long banner hung in the workout room where anyone participating writes their name and their miles marked next to their name.

This brings me to the horrible decision I made. In mid-August I made it to McMurdo. I felt a little bit of satisfaction and then I thought, the guys who did this originally came from McMurdo to the South Pole and then turned around to go back. Crap. I already knew what I was going to do and I was not happy about it. Did I have enough time to make it back to the South Pole, thus completing the entire journey? Only one way to find out.

Thus began the last two months of two-a-days, and often three-a-days, just to make sure I could get enough mileage in to finish this silly goal. This past Saturday, with a tired body, I finally achieved enough miles to make it back to the South Pole. All my miles were done through running and rowing. The rowing gave my body enough rest to continue a ridiculous amounts of miles at times - there were times when I was hitting 22 to 26 miles a day. 

My secondary goal to this whole fiasco was to finish in time to get back to my normal routine before leaving the South Pole. It was a journey of almost 1700 miles. There were a lot of workouts when I definitely considered how entirely stupid the quest truly was.

I guess at the end of the day the only rational thought I had was that if I needed to actually attempt to make my way back to McMurdo on foot I would be ready. This is unlikely as the planes are pretty good at getting here but you never know.

(Below is what I shared with Memphis Runners - I believe they shared it in their August newsletter. This was mostly about my attempt to run a marathon on the treadmill)
The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station sits upon two miles of glacial ice at the bottom of the world.  It is one of the most remote places on this planet, over 800 miles from the next closest station. 
A group of people gather in this unusual location to help support science being done by the United States Antarctic Program. The United States has had a presence at the South Pole since 1956.  More than a few support staff are needed for the scientists to complete their work and a small community forms. During the summer the population can soar to over 150 people, a teeming metropolis compared to the less than fifty who hunker down the long winter months.
It is odd being one of forty-six people at the South Pole. Antarctica is not necessarily a place I saw myself ever visiting. Before we got married Sarah had at one point mentioned she wanted to go to Antarctica one day, but that is the sort of thing people say. Little did I know my wife is not most people.

So I find myself living on a glacier and spending the entire ten-month Austral winter at the South Pole.  Traveling and running is always difficult. Routine is broken. New places, while intriguing, sometimes offer odd dangers – getting lost, running into the wrong neighborhood, not knowing local laws. I’ve certainly found myself attempting to figure out the whole running deal while traveling for the past few  years, and yet Antarctica has offered some fresh challenges for me.

In route to the Pole I was waylaid for three weeks at McMurdo, a station on the coast that all planes fly through on their way to ninety degrees South. At this point it was the end of summer and the weather was really not too bad. I was able to get in a number of runs outside, enjoying some of the last sunshine I would run in for quite some time. I ran around Observation Hill and trails that lead past Robert Falcon Scott’s hut from when he and his team sought to earn the prize of the South Pole.  It was not until I left McMurdo and headed to the Pole that I encountered the most obvious and main two obstacles I would experience while in Antarctica - the extreme cold and being at altitude.  

The South Pole sits at 9,306 feet. The real issue is barometric pressure changes on a daily basis. Today we feel as though we are at 10,817 feet, though for the past two months we have spent most days over 11,000 feet. When combined with the dry air we breathe in here, Antarctica is technically a desert, the acclimation time for running took me quite some time.

Then there is the cold. I grew up in Ohio before moving to Memphis my senior year of high school. I have run in cold temperatures while training for track during the winter months.  Though this part of me became quite accustomed to Memphis winters, I had experienced bone chilling temperatures. Well, I thought I had. Arriving at the South Pole was a little bit of a rude awakening. I managed to get two runs in before the sun disappeared. Both were short and terrible. There is an almost constant wind ripping across the Antarctic plateau that our station sits on, and it is not forgiving. Negative fifty degrees with a strong wind is not pleasant. It was fine running with the wind but at some point one has to turn around. I have never felt wind cut through multiple layers of clothing (more than I had ever worn to run in my life) so easily. I froze.

With the sun promising to disappear for four to five months and temperatures dropping I had only one valid option before me. It is an option I have avoided at all costs in the past.  The treadmill.  The treadmill has always been a tool I have loathed. Boring. Mundane. Unchanging. Pick the negative word and I have most likely associated it with the treadmill at some point in time. Yet there was this damned machine and it was my only option if I wanted to run. So a few months ago I hopped on the treadmill and began a strange journey.

There were some immediate problems that arose. I had eliminated the problem of the extremely cold temperatures, but the altitude and dry climate still persisted in offering their resistance. The treadmill itself was everything I had expected of it. I made the decision early on to watch television shows or movies while running to keep my mind distracted, and maybe to keep my sanity intact. While keeping my mind occupied was not a replacement for running the trails at Shelby Farms, it did help stave off the sheer boredom of running in place for thirty minutes to an hour. The one aspect of treadmill running that has bothered me the most has been my inability to run the paces, according to the machine, I am accustomed to running. Until only recently, I have been at least one minute slower per mile and there is not much I have been able to do except for attempt to push a little harder to lower pace. Is it the altitude? The dry air? My hate for treadmills? A combination of everything? Or just some mental block to running on a machine?

It has been months since my decision to take advantage of the treadmill. I have been slowly making my way through our extensive television series library. And, contrary to my expectations, I am beginning to like the treadmill. It could be like learning to enjoy the company of an unwelcome running partner simply because he is your only current option.  But after he keeps showing up, run after run, as a faithful running buddy, a person can learn to like him. Running itself has always been this way with me. I ran hundreds of miles before I learned to love running. Even then the relationship was dicey at best, though usually running has been a joy. Learning to be content with my current running circumstances has not been easy, but the treadmill is becoming a close friend. The development of my new affinity for the treadmill, though welcome and surprising, has also opened the door to me making an absurd decision.

I am going to run a marathon on the treadmill.

(Planes started arriving at the Pole! Just going through but soon they will
be taking some of us with them. Yay)
Here is the issue. As any serious runner travels, she looks to the opportunities afforded to her in the running world. I have done the same with my time here in Antarctica. There are a few different chances to run a marathon on continent. Unfortunately none of them overlap the time during which I will be here. This was sad news to process. How perfect would it be to get in a marathon while on the continent? How many people have run one on all seven continents? With two continents under my belt it was sour grapes to see this opportunity slipping through my fingers. But did it have to be this way? I stared at the treadmill and considered. Could I even bring myself to make such a decision? The answer is apparently yes!
As many of you might be thinking already, there are concerns with this marathon attempt. Does it really count if it is on a treadmill and not out in the elements? Surely anyone could run a marathon in a hotel in China and count the entire continent of Asia. I have my concerns on this issue, and yet should I allow these concerns to keep me from achieving what I might never have another chance to do in my lifetime? I made the decision to go ahead and begin my training, which meant also pushing all doubts and naysayers to the side – including myself. It is what it is and there is nothing to be done about it.
So here I stand, with a goal I would deem absurd if anyone else mentioned it to me. This week I completed my longest run on a treadmill to date. Twenty miles came and went, along with multiple episodes of The Wire. Thanks to a homemade running gel (made of honey, water, salt, and molasses – I cannot just head down to the local running store) and being way more conscious about taking in plenty of water I felt much better than I thought I would. Previously anything above twelve miles has been quite a struggle. I have been mentally working past some of my previous issues with the pace on the treadmill, though I am still not working out at paces I am used to running the full marathon distance at in the past.

In two weeks I will be attempting to run the full marathon. I am still debating on my pace goals. At this point I am fairly confident I will be able to finish this distance. My body has been responding decently to the twenty miler this week and I’m getting excited about seeing what will happen when I try to tack on another six miles. I never could have imagined running any of the distances I have completed on the treadmill, let alone a full marathon. I would say it is ridiculous but at this point it is just beginning to feel normal to me. It is as though the part of my brain that hated treadmills has been slightly worn away, as if a grinder has been slowly wearing it down.
Running in Antarctica has been a challenge. I never would have thought the treadmill would be a friend in a time of need. I do look forward to the return of the sun and weather that will not sear my lungs, leaving me with a bloody cough for weeks.  Even more so, I cannot wait until I fly through New Zealand and have the chance to go for a run in a much more accommodating climate. And yet I have this peculiar feeling that when I leave I might just miss my new companion.  I will always be grateful to the machine I once despised, but between the two I will always choose a nice trail outside. Perhaps the South Pole can be my exception.
For now the treadmill is a glorious machine enabling me to run, even while wintering-over in a place where the normal ambient temperature outside is around negative eighty degrees Fahrenheit – this does not include wind chill. The treadmill is my safe haven. Like many other tools in running the treadmill, however reluctantly I say even now, does have its place. Ok treadmill, let’s do this.