Eating in Antarctica

Life after Antarctica has been pretty busy, so I have lots of updating to do to this blog, but I wanted to post one last thing about our trip. When you think of Antarctica, you probably don’t think of food at all, but One Ocean Expeditions did a great job catering to us.

Everyday there was a dinner with soup, a salad bar, three options for entrees, and a dessert. The funniest thing was the line for the salad: all those healthy runners couldn’t wait to eat their carrots! The fiancé and I hate lines, so we just stayed at our table with more soup and more bread. The staff was really accommodating towards the fiancé’s food allergies and even made him special desserts without eggs.

Some of the days we had a buffet and the day after the race we joined another boat and had a barbecue outside in 30 degree weather.  I also heard the breakfast buffet was awesome, but I never woke up early enough to get there 😉

Each lunch/dinner we sat at a different table to get to know our fellow travelers. There were people from all over the world: Australians, French, Russians, and, of course, lots of Americans. There were couples in their 70’s, families with their teenage kids, a group of friends who take vacations together without their wives every year, people travelling alone, and all sorts of people.

Besides good food, the Vavilov had good drinks. The bar was upstairs and had an amazing view, so that’s where most people would be after each excursion. They even served an afternoon tea with cookies that turned into Happy Hour. The fiancé and I weren’t drinking before the race, but after we completed our run we celebrated with a bottle of champagne. The next day there was an auction for a few of the race items, such as the mile markers and we sipped more drinks while that was going on.

The best part was when the fiancé and another guy got an ice block out of the ocean. The bartender cut it into smaller ice cubes and made drinks with it. Whiskey on the rocks – but with really really old rocks!

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Traveling in Antarctica

Antarctica was so much more than the marathon. In Ushuaia, Argentina, we boarded our cruise ship, the Vavilov, and were greeted by the One Ocean Expeditions staff with champagne and appetizers. The fiancé and I shared a small cabin with two twin beds and a bathroom that was also shared with the adjacent cabin. The Vavilov is not your usual cruise ship. It’s actually a Russian research vessel for most of the year. The Canadian expedition company One Ocean rents the boat for the Antarctic cruise from November to March and that money supports the researchers the rest of the year. As soon as we got on the Vavilov, we felt very safe with the knowledgeable staff: there was an iceberg specialist, a naturalist, an expedition leader, a kayak specialist, a hotel manager, and a few more crew members that were always ready to teach us something new about the continent.  Behind the scenes, most of the sailors and kitchen workers were Russian and also very competent and friendly. While Marathon Tours, the company I signed up with from the US, was responsible for the race part of the trip, One Ocean Expeditions led all of the other excursions and I can’t say enough about what a wonderful job they did.

Antarctica Group Photo

Antarctica Group Photo

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It took three days to travel from Argentina to Antarctica. First we had to navigate the Beagle Channel and then we were on the dreaded Drake Passage. The Drake is the body of water between South America and Antarctica and it is known for being very stormy, so everybody paid extra attention to the life boat drill we had the first day. Being a small boat, the Vavilov did rock a lot, which I found very relaxing, but many people got sea sick and couldn’t get out of their cabins for a while. For the days at sea, the crew had many presentations planned: we watched movies about Antarctica and marathons, and learned about birds, penguins, ice, and whales from the naturalists. We also had to do a couple of mandatory meetings to make sure we were in compliance with the Antarctic Treaty: pretty much we were following  a “leave no trace behind” rule and had to stay a few feet away from all wildlife. In the end, it was actually a very mellow Drake sailing, as I slept most of the time and even missed a couple of the presentations.

On March 8th we finally saw the first Antarctic land of the trip: the South Shetlands Islands! The next day our first excursion was to Half Moon Island. We had to wear our red One Ocean waterproof suits and rubber boots, so we looked like a bunch of red penguins in Antarctica. And, speaking of penguins, that’s the first thing I saw when I stepped on my 7th continent. There are penguins everywhere and, of course, they are the cutest! The shore has some gravel and rocks, but then the snow covers most of the area. I was impressed by the size of the mountains around us. We couldn’t see some of the peaks as clouds were covering them, but with the sun peeking through, it was a magical view.

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We started our short hike on Half Moon Island and, on the way, there were many seals. Unlike penguins, they are not as friendly. As a naturalist described them, they are like teenagers trying to push the boundaries: they would run up, scream really loud at us, but then they would move away if we made some noise at them. Some seals were really big and scary, but most would just chill on the rocks. When we got to the top of the hill, we saw HUNDREDS of penguins all next to each other. It was molting season, when they kind of hibernate and don’t move for weeks until all feathers have changed. Most of them were just standing there looking miserable (they are hungry and tired), but some of them were done with the shedding process and were walking around being as funny as they could be. This was a colony of Chinstrap penguins, but in the middle of them there was a yellow-haired Macaroni penguin who didn’t have a clue he was hanging out with the wrong crowd. So cute!

I'm in Antarctica!

I’m in Antarctica!

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The next day was marathon day on King George Island! On this island we saw more penguins, seals, and birds, but also quite a few humans as it’s home to research stations from China, Argentina, South Korea, Uruguay, Chile, and Russia. It was the only island with gravel roads, warehouses, and a church, as it’s inhabited year-round. So happy I completed the marathon, but the next day I was so tired and sore from all the hills that I missed the morning excursion to Mikkelsen Harbor in Trinity Island. By that point I had seen so many penguins already, that sleep was more important so I could recover for our kayak excursion in a couple of days. Click here to see a list of all wildlife we saw in Antarctica. In the afternoon we had an award ceremony, where not only the top 3 marathoners and half-marathoners got their medals, but also all the racers that had completed a marathon on ALL 7 continents. And you thought I was crazy!

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The next couple of days there were ship cruises and zodiac cruises through ice lakes with the most pristine water, penguins swimming nearby, and seals relaxing on bergy bits, which are small icebergs. There were massive glaciers everywhere and also real icebergs the size of castles. Just beautiful days in Cierva Cove and Neko Harbor! This last harbor was actually on the Antarctica peninsula instead of an island, so it was my first time stepping on the mainland! Of course, more cute penguins were there to greet me. That day was very windy and a little wet, so the pictures were a bit fuzzy, but later a stunning double-rainbow came out to save the day.

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Antarctica

Antarctica

My favorite day of the whole trip was also our last excursion on the mainland. We first cruised Paradise harbor for another look at the glaciers. The name was very fitting: amazing views of lakes, icebergs, glaciers, mountains, and wildlife. Truly paradise. Some people went to the top of a peak in Almirante Brown for the spectacular views and sled down. The fiancé did that while I stayed with the penguins on the bottom mustering courage for our next adventure: a polar plunge! Our expedition leader would wake us up every day with the temperature of the air and the water. That day the water was 29 degrees Fahrenheit: below freezing! I had promised the fiancé I would to this with him, so we put our bathing suits on and jumped in the water together. To my surprise it was not cold: it was just PAINFUL. We were in the water for just a few seconds, but my hands and feet were more frozen that I thought possible. Although the adrenaline takes care of the cold, the feeling of needles going through your fingers and toes is awful. The hot shower I took after that was the best shower of my life. Speaking from experience, a true polar plunge is worse than skydiving or bungee jumping, but I’m glad I got over my fear and did it with the fiancé!

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The afternoon had more surprises awaiting us in Wilhemina Bay. Most of the boat had signed up for a kayaking excursion, but many times it got canceled because of the weather. We were scheduled for the kayaks on our last afternoon in Antarctica and the day looked incredible! We put on our dry-suits and the fiancé and I shared a tandem kayak. At first, I was terrified: what if we fell in the water? But then Humpback whales started to show up and do their magic. For hours we watched them “dancing” around us. It was like watching a ballet performance. They would go around us in slow motion, spraying once in a while, breaching, turning very gracefully, all right next to us. We kayaked until sunset and at the end of the day I couldn’t have felt more accomplished.

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The next two days we braved the Drake Passage again and all I did was sleep for hours. It turns out sailing the rough seas is quite exhausting! Click here to see a chart of our trip. We arrived back in Argentina and got a plane the same day to the US. Antarctica was so much more than I had hoped. I conquered fears, achieved dreams, learned tons, and made memories with the fiancé that will last a lifetime. Definitely an experience I will cherish forever.

Click here to donate to Big Brothers Big Sisters, a mentoring program that empowers children to also achieve their dreams.

Click here to see a compilation of images and videos  from our trip put together by the crew of One Ocean Expeditions.

Running in Antarctica

We made it to Antarctica and back safe and sound and I can’t wait to write all about the trip, but first I want to share about the marathon, which was a very challenging but extraordinary experience. The day before, King George Island, where the marathon was going to be held, was hit with rain and snow. The island is home to scientists that live on research bases from all over the world and we were supposed to run on their dirt road, from the start line to the Uruguay base, and then to the China base. However, the race organizers decided to change the course because the path to the Uruguay base had turned very dangerous with all the mud and snow. Now the course consisted of 6 laps from the start line to the China base and back. While some people complained, I actually liked it as I prefer to run laps: the familiarity with the whole terrain after only one lap would work well for my anxiety. And so, the next morning, our adventure started!

Getting our race bibs

Getting our race bibs

About 100 runners had to be brought to shore by zodiacs: each zodiac is a small boat that holds 8-10 people, so it took a while for everybody to get to shore. We ended up being on the last boat that left the cruise ship, not because we were late, but because someone had to be last and we figured we preferred to arrive closer to the starting time than to be first on the island and have to sit around for an hour. However, being last off the cruise ship didn’t work out so well because as soon as we set foot on shore, the organizers started the race: I didn’t even have my running shoes on yet! I scrambled to take all of my zodiac gear (waterproof suits and rubber boots), secure everything into my backpack and lace my shoes, but by the time I was done, the race was well under way. Because they go by gun time, not chip time, my official race time wouldn’t be an accurate representation of my running. Still, I wasn’t too upset: I was not there to finish the marathon at a certain time; all I wanted was to finish it!

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The day before, I had watched a movie about the Chicago marathon and one of the participants, who came last, said he didn’t mind taking his time: he had paid so much to be in that race, that he was getting his money’s worth by enjoying it for as long as possible. That was my attitude on race day. I was running a marathon in Antarctica and I wanted to experience it my way. I knew I had 7 hours to do it, so the fiancé and I decided to walk the first lap together. Since everybody was way ahead of us, we were able to walk, stop, take pictures, and absorb the view together. The research stations looked like small warehouses and some scientists were out and about that day. Around us we could also see lakes, the ocean, mountains, birds, and the occasional penguin. It was a beautiful time we spent together, but after the first lap, the race organizers were really worried about my time: if I continued to walk at that pace, I wouldn’t be able to complete the course in less than 7 hours.

The fiance and I at the starting line

The fiance and I at the starting line

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To prove to the race organizers that I could do it, I had to pick up my pace and the next lap I hit some 11-minute miles, which, considering the course, that was pretty good. The path to the China base was extremely muddy as well. Even though at first I tried to go around the potholes, it was pretty much impossible to keep my shoes clean and after a while, I gave up and stepped right in the middle of all the mess. Although the mud was a deterrent, it wasn’t as bad as the hills: not very steep ones, but there were lots of them. After the third lap I knew I couldn’t run the whole course and finish it, so to save my legs from exhaustion, I decided to walk the up hills and run downhill. It worked out great and I was having fun listening to my music, dancing, and enjoying the scenery. The weather had been in the 30’s with a light breeze and the three layers (next-to-skin base layer, fleece, waterproof outwear) I was wearing had proven to be the perfect amount. I was also very happy with my decision to bring my hydration pack. While most runners had to leave water bottles at the start line and the China base to replenish their bodies, I was able to hydrate anytime I wanted. Although I hadn’t had breakfast, my GU gels were working great. We couldn’t have them in the original wrappers on shore, so the night before I had squeezed all the gel into a flask and I was able to sip on that anytime I needed, thanks to my hydration pack that carried all of my essentials.

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I completed the half-marathon mark (13.1 miles) in 2h50, so I was confident I could finish the marathon under the cut off time, but then the wind started to pick up. Snow started to fall and I had to pull up my face mask to protect myself. The race organizers said they might have to close the course soon due to the weather: if the boat captain said we had to leave, we had to leave. During lap 4 I was worried I wouldn’t be able to finish the marathon: the really fast runners were already going back to the cruise ship, after finishing the course in about 3h30, but I was still really far behind – maybe I shouldn’t have walked that first lap… At least one of us had completed something: the fiance finished the half-marathon and was on his way back to the warm boat.

The fiance finished the Half-Marathon! Congrats!

The fiance finished the Half-Marathon! Congrats!

During the fifth lap I was trying so hard to get faster and finish before they closed the course, that I started to feel miserable, but then the wind died and the organizers told us we still had the full 7 hours to complete the marathon: I relaxed almost too much and just walked the last 2 miles, absorbing the magnitude of my day.  I ended up completing 26.2 miles in Antarctica in 6h15min, which is about 14-minute/miles. I hadn’t been the fastest runner (or the slowest! About 20 people finished after me!), but at least I had done it. Not only I had accomplished my lifetime goal of going to all 7 continents by age 30, but I had also finished a marathon in a muddy, hilly, cold, and windy terrain.

Antarctica Marathon? Check :)

Antarctica Marathon? Check 🙂

After receiving my finisher’s medal, I sat down with a big smile on my face and the cold finally hit me. The whole race I had been pretty comfortable as the heat built from running kept me warm, but once I stopped exercising, the cold sweat on my skin became unbearable. Thankfully, he expedition crew was awesome and I didn’t have to think about anything. They found my backpack, changed my shoes for me and zipped me up. Back on the cruise ship, the fiancé and I celebrated our accomplishments after a deserving long hot shower. He had finished the half-marathon in less than 4 hours, with tendonitis and all! So proud of us!

Traveling: Ushuaia, Argentina

Ushuaia - The end of the world

Ushuaia – The end of the world

Ushuaia is the southernmost town in the world and we had the pleasure to explore it before we left on our cruise to Antarctica. It’s a small town, but there are many activities to do in the area. Main Street is full of restaurants and shops and the snow-capped mountains behind it provide a cozy ski town feeling.

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Some people decided to hike up to Martial Glacier, where you have beautiful views of Ushuaia below, but knowing we would be seeing massive glaciers in just a couple more days, we decided to go to Tierra del Fuego National Park instead. The park can be reached by car of by train, the Tren del Fin del Mundo (End of the World Train). Since we only had a day there, the fiancé and I plus a couple from Australia hired a taxi to take us inside and show us some of the lakes and overlooks. Yes, the worse way to explore a national park, but it worked out really well as we were trying to conserve energy for our run anyway. The taxi driver would take us to a trail, we would hike for a little bit, and then he would take us to a different spot. It was a beautiful day at Tierra del Fuego, the land of fire, which got this name because natives would warm themselves up with huge bonfires near the shore a few hundred years ago.

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After checking our e-mails one last time before losing all connectivity with the world, we boarded the cruise ship , did a lifeboat drill, and said goodbye to Argentina. The Beagle Channel and the Drake Passage were ahead of us: now nothing but water was separating me from my dream.

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Argentina on top, Antarctica on the bottom

Argentina on top, Antarctica on the bottom