As soon as I passed through the threshold of the aircraft door, the cold cut through my piled-on layers of down and fleece in a flash.
I felt it in my bones first. It was a terrifying cold. In some primitive, reptilian part of my brain I knew that this was not discomfort, but this was death. The body is not meant to thrive here. It can only endure.
Four days ago I was baking in the heat of Baghdad, Iraq. In two days I would attempt to run a marathon across a glacier in the heart of Antarctica. I had never run a marathon before.
Nolan, I thought, you’re in some seriously deep shit.
In 2010 I decided to run my first marathon. But something about the way modern marathons resembled wildebeest migrations through city streets just didn’t appeal to me. So I decided to try something a little different, a little crazy. I would attempt a 26.2-mile glacier crossing in the most extreme environment on earth — the interior of Antarctica.
And I wanted to do it for a good cause — providing college scholarships for the children of fallen special operations soldiers. The extreme nature of the race was worthy of their legacy, and filled me with enough pride and sense of purpose to endure one of the most physically taxing experiences of my life. And since this would be my first marathon, pride and sense of purpose was about all I had going for me.
There was another catch – I had orders to deploy to Iraq for the three months prior to the race. I was an Air Force special operations pilot assigned to a joint special operations task force at Balad Air Base, Iraq.
The nature of my work prevents me from revealing what I did on a day-to-day basis. But I can say that I worked 12-hour days, seven days a week, for four months straight - and I worked exclusively at night. Enough said.
The challenge was daunting. I had to not only find time to train for my first marathon amid the stressful schedule of combat operations, but I had to prepare for running 26.2 miles in the snow, extreme cold and unmerciful katabatic winds of Antarctica, while living in Iraq.
I had a plan: I would follow a training schedule I had pulled off the internet. It included gradually increasing weekly mileage, but I added a twist – lots of weight training. I figured that running through snow against gale force winds would require a physique more like a bulldog than a gazelle.
It was hard work. My shift began around dinner when the sun was still up, and while it was still incredibly hot. Training in this heat wouldn’t do me much good, so every day before I reported for work, I hit the gym for an hour of strength training. Twelve hours later I would walk back to my hooch, deflect my eyes from the allure of my bed, trade my flight suit and boots for running shorts and nikes, and run the base perimeter. It was a struggle, and my motivation waned as the months of fatigue piled up. But my fitness responded to the training, and I was able to add muscle and strength as my weekly long runs went from six to 20 miles.
Running around base at night was surreal. Nights were usually black as an abyss, only sporadically illuminated by a rocket attack or retaliatory fire. It’s odd how something as serious as a firefight can become as obscure of a threat as thunder after months of desensitization in a combat zone. The further my training progressed, the longer my runs. I would often run for hours, weaving through the bombed-out Republican Guard bunkers and ruins of tanks obliterated by American bombing. These twisted silhouettes in the blackness of the night were reminiscent of the bizarre world of a Dali painting or something from the mind of Edvard Munch.
Balad was one of Saddam’s air bases that we put to use after our invasion became an occupation. The base was a constant reminder of the violence of that transfer of ownership. My most striking memory of that time was watching the sun rise over the Arabian desert, letting my mind drift to the wonders and challenges that awaited me so far away, at the bottom of the world.
The race I was training to complete was the Antarctic Ice Marathon. It is the only marathon run in the interior of Antarctica. Competitors are flown to a blue ice runway at 80 degrees south, just a few hundred miles from the South Pole. We would run on the snow and ice across the Union Glacier on a route scouted to be free of crevasses. Temperatures in this region hover around -20 degrees Celsius, and winds blow at a steady 10 – 25 knots. Nothing lives here. The interior of Antarctica is far-removed from the penguins and seals of the coast. No plants, no moss, no fungi – even bacteria fail to thrive. It is not a place meant for life, and our intention was to run a marathon. This is crazy.
I departed Iraq on December 8, 2010 and 72 hours later I was in Punta Arenas, Chile to meet the rest of my adventurous cohort. The initial introductions left me feeling spectacularly out of my league.
There were 32 other runners competing in the race, and I was the only one who had not previously run a marathon. Many had run dozens of marathons, some had run hundreds. Even more impressive were the select group of ultra-runners who routinely completed races of over 100 miles in length. Other athletes had completed full Ironman triathlons and clocked marathon personal best performances worthy of an Olympic trial appearance. Almost all had specifically trained for the cold by such extreme techniques as running on treadmills in meat lockers or traveling into the mountains to practice running in the snow.
And there I was, with my lumbering few months of beginner marathon training according to an internet training plan, completed in a hot, dusty desert far-removed from the snow and ice of the polar reaches. I grew insecure about the wisdom of choosing such an extreme challenge for my first marathon.
But I had to try. I had chosen to run this race to raise money and awareness for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation. This organization provides college scholarships for the children of special operations soldiers killed in combat or training. Unfortunately, this task had grown increasingly significant as special operations forces began to bear the brunt of the most dangerous combat in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a greater portion of the casualties.
This race was a personal test and a unique opportunity for adventure, but most importantly it was a testament to the incredible bravery and sacrifice that I had witnessed. I wanted to express my gratitude in the most audacious and fitting way possible. A marathon in Antarctica seemed appropriate.
We waited for days in Punta Arenas, and I became restless. Landing a cargo jet on the ice, far beyond the reach of resupply or emergency aid makes perfect weather a necessity. So we waited for mother nature to grant us her permission.
I made quick friends with some members of the group. Everyone was inspired to run this race for some unique reason, and would soon draw on these inspirations when their bodies began to fail. I was ready to go. I was fit and strong. My mind was focused and 100 percent committed to success. I pledged that I would finish no matter what. Short of breaking a leg there was nothing that could prevent me from putting one foot in front of the other, and to quit while I had one step left in me would be a disservice to my cause, and the work I had done to be here.
I was going to succeed.
We waited in Punta Arenas for the weather to clear. When word came that a window of good weather was open for the flight to Antarctica, idleness quickly turned to frantic activity and within hours we had our bodies and our gear loaded onto the Russian Ilyushin cargo jet. Six hours of flight time later the rugged aircraft touched down on a stretch of blue ice deep within the interior of Antarctica. I had made it. I stepped off the plane, and set foot on my seventh continent.
My first impression of Antarctica was not the beauty of the endless expanse of snow, nor the rugged outline of the rocky peaks – it was the penetrating cold. I’ve never experienced cold like that before. Even beneath multiple layers of fleece, down and gore-tex, the cold instantly penetrates to your core. Extremities quickly go numb, and your perception of the outside world narrows as you increasingly focus on the suffering of your physical self. The 200-yard walk from the aircraft to a warming hut was a struggle to endure. How am I going to run 26.2 miles in this?
We were shepherded to camp in transport vans retrofitted with snow-cat treds in place of wheels. Camp was nothing more than a collection of tents in a corner of the glacier protected from the worst of the unrelenting wind. The setting was spectacular. In one direction was the expanse of the polar ice cap. An endless void of perfectly flat snow that had accumulated over millenia, extending to the horizon. In another direction was the spine of a rugged chain of mountains that are the highest in Antarctica. Incidentally, our camp was also a staging area for climbers intent on climbing Mt Vinson, the highest peak on the continent.
We settled in to camp and adjusted to the cold. The race was going to happen as soon as favorable weather was forecast. This was the Antarctic summer and the sun never set, so we could be called to run at any time of day.
When that call came the next morning, I was ready. I downed a hearty meal of oats, bread, eggs and lots of peanut butter. I was likely to burn over 10,000 calories, and I needed to ingest as much energy as my body could take in.
We assembled around the starting line of the race, (a banner humorously spanning a random starting portal amid thousands of square miles of empty space) exchanged a few expressions of well wishes, and prepared for the start of what was sure to be one of the most exhausting days of our lives.
“Pow!” The starting gun went off and we were gone.
I quickly settled into a comfortable, steady rhythm. Others sprinted ahead, but I harnessed my ego and resisted the urge to keep up. The snow pack was initially solid, and the running was easy. Even the weather was relatively tolerable, and of all things – I began to overheat. The combination of the strenuous physical effort and the intense solar radiation caused my core temperature to rise, and I began to sweat. There is a large hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica that greatly amplifies the intensity of solar radiation, all of which is reflected back up into one’s face by the uniform whiteness of the snow layer. This reflected radiation was so intense that by the end of the race the roof of my mouth was sunburn.
The sensation of heat was fickle. A pause of only several seconds to tie a loose shoe lace would quickly lead to a bitter chill made worse by sweat-dampened clothing. Luckily I felt strong and never broke stride.
Miles ticked by. Without much of a struggle I had six miles under my belt, and then a half-marathon. There were multiple aid stations set up along the course with warming tents, hot liquids and all varieties of high-calorie snacks. I only paused long enough at each station to stuff my face with chocolate bars and cookies, trying my best to counter the astronomical energy demands of the race.
Then something unexpected began to happen - I slowly began to overtake some of the runners who had sprinted out of the starting gates. The condition of the snow was much more loose on the far reaches of the course, and the running was increasingly demanding on the legs. My strength training was paying off. On a hard and flat surface I was a much slower runner than most of my competition — these guys and girls would all smoke me on a normal day. But in sections of the race where we sank up to our knees in the loosely-packed snow, my overall strength allowed me to keep plowing ahead while most others had to stop and walk. Now don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t leading the field, but I was trucking along at a consistent pace, and I never stopped running. I felt good.
The cold and the wind were largely forgotten during the race. I was so focused on my breathing and the state of my body that I was able to block out these sensory annoyances. Whenever my muscles began to ache, and I felt like stopping to walk, if only for a second, my mind flashed to story of heroes like Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell -men who never gave up even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. I couldn’t allow myself to walk, I had to keep running.
And I did, straight to the finish line. I finished the race shoulder-to-shoulder with a Taiwanese runner named Tommy Chen. Tommy has finished fourth in a 100-mile ultramarathon through the Himalayas, has outright won marathons in Japan and Canada, and was the third place finisher in the 2008 Polar 600 km stage race. I had no business finishing next to a runner like Tommy. I had pushed my body well beyond what I considered possible.
I was exhausted, exhilarated and overcome with relief. I had been singularly focused on this goal for almost half of a year. To achieve it filled me with pride and a deep sense of satisfaction. I absorbed the experience fully, knowing that it would be one of the highlights of my life.
I ended up finishing 11th out of the field of 33 runners, in a time of five hours and forty minutes. I was the second American runner to finish out of the 11 Americans in the race. Much more significant than my own performance was the fact that I had raised nearly seven thousand dollars for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation. A news segment about my participation in the race was featured on HLN news and CNN, providing the foundation with valuable publicity.
Antarctica was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Many people doubted my ability to complete such a race without having ever run a marathon – I was among those doubters. But I made it. In the end it wasn’t the power of my legs or lungs that got me through that race – it was the legacy of the heroes I was there to honor. I was inspired to dream big and aspire for goals beyond what is reasonable because of the things our special operations soldiers do on a daily basis.