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The Last Marathon

(Editor’s note: Tyrone native Rick Stonebraker has shared his experiences with The Daily Herald in running “The Last Marathon”. This is the second article in a series of four that will run in the form of a diary of Stonebraker’s experiences.)
February 24
A second day crossing and nothing to see but water all around. The highlights of the day included attending presentations, eating, resting and attending happy hour. I chatted with one group of people from New England who enjoyed their liquor and when I asked if that was their choice of training fluids, they raised a toast and said they were mere alcoholics with a running problem.
Late in the evening, we sailed into Wilheminia Bay where we dropped off Tom and his support staff. They would stay the night at the Russian research base and then the following day, prepare the course for the marathon on the 26th. This gave us the opportunity to cruise that night and be in a picturesque place in the morning.
February 25
We anchored in Whalers Bay, off Deception Island. We use rubber boats with outboard motors called zodiacs to transfer us from the ship to the shore. There is an abandoned whaling station where some buildings still stand. The storage tanks are rusted and collapsed and several sunken, dilapidated whaling boats were left on the beach. There were even a couple crosses denoting graves of those who failed to return to their homelands.
Deception Island has an inactive volcano that still vents, creating a hotsprings near the shore. The beach is covered with volcanic rock and the water temperature at the edge is very hot.
Several people were prepared to join the Polar Swim Club by doffing their arctic coats and remaining clothes down to their swimsuit and frolic in the warm water that extends only a few yards into the bay. Any further than that and it gets frigid cold; only a few degrees above freezing. I was not properly attired for these festivities but figured, what the heck, how often do you get to do something like this so I waded into the water in my skivvies. The dozen or so later received certificates that stated:
POLAR SWIMMING – This certificate is awarded to Rick Stonebraker in order to honour the adventurous spirit that inspired you to immerse your body and soul into the hotsprings of Whalers Bay on Deception Island the 25th of February 2005.
There were a few penguins on the beach and a number of seals. Another highlight was walking to the top of a nook and looking down into Neptune’s Caldron. A beautiful crescent shaped lagoon where the surf crashed into the base of the cliffs and numerous icebergs lay offshore.
We returned to the ship for lunch, a short nap and to recharge camera batteries. This cold climate reduces the energy of the batteries to about half. I brought three spare sets of rechargeable batteries.
We next landed on Half Moon Island where there was a large penguin rookery. An elephant seal greeted us so we had to move further down the beach. Chinstrap penguins are cute and cuddly and they were standing around everywhere. We had a strict five-meter limit that we must follow. However, if we sit down to take photos and they happen to venture toward us, then we can sit and enjoy their company from a close proximity. They are a bit clumsy on land as they waddle and hop from rock to rock but are quite agile in the water.
We walked up a slope to the top of the hill for a view of the bay. Antarctica is absolutely magnificent from any place and any angle. Even from the top of the hill, we look around and the mountain peaks tower thousands of feet over the bay. Although we had an overcast day, the vista was still breathtaking! Our ship looked so tiny sitting in the bay. Many ice bergs drift with the wind and the current and dwarf the ship.
There are very few places to come ashore as 95 percent of the coast line is the front end of a glacier that stands 200-300 foot high. The few places where there is a shore are loaded with penguins and seals. Of which the penguins keep a close watch and a safe distance from the seals.
February 26
We anchored in Maxwell Bay the evening before and the IOFFE must have dropped anchor sometime in the night. There is a strict policy set forth by the IAATO (International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators) that there cannot be more than 100 people in any one location. So, all female runners, anyone over 60 and the half-marathon runners beached in one location and the rest beached a quarter mile away. The first group would start five minutes before the second group, therefore avoiding having more than the required limit as stated.
Many of the runners were not ready for this marathon, as they must have expected much flatter ground. Marathon runners are more used to running in the streets of big cities like the New York Marathon or Boston or Chicago, etc. They were not prepared for the hills, the mud, running a half-mile up a glacier and back down and running over rocks. I like trail running and was properly prepared. The weather was hanging a little over freezing at around 1.5 degrees C (34.7F) and very comfortable when properly dressed.
Those two training runs in Tyrone back before Christmas prepared me for this.
During the marathon, it rained for a little while and then around noon, the temperature dropped about ten degrees and a snow squall appeared. We were in a white out condition for about 15 minutes where you couldn’t see 10 yards in front. Out of 205 starters, all but 29 finished.
We raised anchor and headed out of Maxwell Bay. The minute we rounded the north end of the point, we came into icebergs. Some small ones, some big ones and some huge ones and they were everywhere. Beautiful chunks of white and blue and green water where the two come together. They drifted lazily in the wind or the current.
(Editor’s note: The next installment of the story can be found in tomorrow’s edition of The Daily Herald.)