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The White Continent: Awe, Adversity and Accolades

It’s about time to dispel the myth that online marketers are geeks with glasses stuck behind computer screens. Ok, admittedly they are all those things…but they’re also incredibly generous and even a little bit adventurous. Cue my venture into obscurity.

The Motive
Plenty of people run, a lot of people run marathons and a few people take it even further – I admire every single one of them. Any individual who dons a pair of trainers and heads out to go running is a hero in my book. I’ve been running for 10 years now and 8 years ago ran my first marathon when I was 18. The euphoria from that lasted a while until I wanted something more – that’s where the seven continents marathon club came in.

To run seven marathons on 7 continents isn’t easy, it’s not cheap and it instigates a whole range of emotions from euphoria to helplessness to despair at times to eventual triumph and immense satisfaction. Up until 2013 I had completed 5 of the 7 continents; Berlin, Milan and London for Europe, Sydney for Australia, Japan for Asia, Chicago for North America and Marrakech for Africa – now it was time for the tricky ones. NB: Anyone looking to run two marathons in ten days I strongly do NOT recommend!

Logistics
Left to run were South America and Antarctica. Living in London Antarctica isn’t the easiest place to get to – there’s hardly a British Airways charter flight out. So first we had to coordinate a total of four flights – London to Madrid, Madrid to Santiago, Santiago to Punta Arenas, Punta Arenas to Antarctica. A total of 10,000 miles and 24 hours flying time. Organising and catching these connecting flights, staying the odd night here and there in a hotel and waiting for flights out turned out to be incredibly nerve wracking due to the windows available to get down to the Antarctic being so small. It was surprisingly stressful! Another issue we had was excess baggage – travelling light to the Antarctic isn’t recommended and we got stung with excess charges plus to add to the mix in Santiago it can easily reach 30 degrees whilst in Antarctica it can do the same the other way reaching -30 degrees. In short, there’s a lot to think about.

About to touch down on the blue ice runway

About to touch down on the blue ice runway

Unpredictability
You cannot just schedule a flight in to Antarctica unfortunately! You have to wait for the weather and delays of 4 – 5 days are quite normal. When waiting for a flight out, situation updates are usually twice per day limiting what you can do with the time whilst you wait, again and again you’re told it’s a no go until that one time you’re told yes. You get the call and thirty minutes later you’re on your way to the airport. Forget long check in ques – buses take you pretty much straight to the aircraft. You wear your winter gear and tread into the antibacterial tray before you board the Ilyushin cargo aircraft for a 4.5 hour flight, then it’s next step Antarctica. A screen is placed at the front of the passenger area linked to a camera at the front of the plane so you can see out at all times – that includes take off, your approach to the continent and that all important landing on the blue ice runway. Flying blissfully over the ice is nothing short of spectacular.

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Touch down in Antarctica!

Awe and Adulation
And after all travel, the prep, the cost, the stress – you arrive… and it melts into insignificance. No picture can truly do Antarctica justice, it’s simply breathtaking. Stepping off the plane into a world of white and ice and sub zero temperatures is a surreal and wonderful experience. It’s straight onto the monster trucks…and on to camp.

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Not a bad view out of camp!

Camp
Union glacier camp moves 20 metres a year – and yes it really is on a glacier! Crevasse checks are crucial and accidents do happen, whatever you do, do not stray away from the flag lines! Client tents are two man tents with a sleeping bag that goes down to -40 degrees. The inside of the tents rarely go above freezing and any water you may have beside your bed overnight to drink will surely freeze. Sleeping bags obscure the bodies beneath them entirely – heads and faces get too cold otherwise and many sleep with full kit on. Although there’s 24-hour daylight and the tents are heated naturally by the sun they do get cold – especially during an Antarctic storm when there is no sun! There are medical tents, gear tents, staff tents, communications tents – but most are no go, excluding the mess tents where all briefings are held and you spend most of your time.

Staff
There are around 60 staff at camp ranging from chefs to meteorologists to pilots to doctors. They make an incredible team, they make things happen and they make the trip. Food is served three times a day and frankly, I ate better there than I do at home! Toilets are bracing! There is a loo for each type of waste and no flush – all waste is removed from continent at the end of summer. Showers are limited to approximately one minute every 3 days. Camp is wonderful.

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Face says it all – third woman across the line!

The Marathon
A number of events were held on Union Glacier during the time I was there, the main being the Antarctic Ice Marathon for which most of the staff were roped in to help as there were so many of us – 54 competitors from around the world. I won’t lie – it’s agony. Trails are groomed but you’re still running on soft snow, at -20 we had to cover our faces entirely to prevent frostbite and even despite doing that I still got a bit of windburn on my cheek. Sunglasses are mandatory as even a few hours in the snow with the naked eye can result in severe snow blindness. When we ran the race it was -21, with the windchill around -25. The right clothing was understandably essential. You were checked in and out of various checkpoints around the 13.1 mile course run twice to ensure everyone was kept track of. It was insanely hard going – to put it in perspective the winner of the ladies race who won with a time of 4 hours 20 minutes is a former Olympian with a personal best record of 2 hours 38 minutes on the flat. Running in snow, with masks on and in those temperatures you are unable to breath as freely as you would normally, and because of the head gear your sunglasses steam up, this steam then freezes so you are unable to see properly, this means you slip and slide on the snow raising more challenges for competitors – it’s a terrifically challenging race and as a wimpy runner that likes the flat, I found it impossibly hard. Saying that I came in third – an achievement I have no idea whatsoever how I managed!

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Slightly emotional at the finish

Monotony
After the race it’s still all very exciting, they ran a triathlon and a 100km race (those guys ran through the night due to the 24 daylight, the winner set a new course record in 11 hours), after that’s all died down though, there’s not a great deal to do! It’s too cold to stay outside for any substantial amount of time so you become acquainted with doing very little. Routine centres around mealtimes between which you can watch movies, chat and read. The personal tents are too cold to do much else apart from sleep in with the sleeping bag circulating your body heat through the night. When the storm came it hit 25 knots blowing through the camp, so as well as being loud through the night the windchill from that brought the temperature down to -50. Antarctic storms can last weeks and so it was at this point we realized we were interminably stuck.

The staff want the clients out as much as the clients want to get out but it all depends on the weather hence people’s quick regard of the resident meteorologist as a God like figure throughout camp. Weather in Antarctica is unpredictable so they can’t tell you you’ll be flying out in 5 days, it’s likely in 5 days and unlikely before then but there might be a window in between, sometimes a window so convincing they will list a proposed flight arrival time, only to have to snatch it away again last minute as the weather closes in. This plays havoc with your head, your emotions and your flight schedule back home. There is no client Internet and limited satellite phones so when I say you’re stuck, you really are!

It's a big place - and breathtaking to behold

It’s a big place – and breathtaking to behold

Waiting
This expanse of nothingness, not knowing, waiting, hoping, helplessness and despondency lasted a week – and as a self-confessed control freak I found it particularly hard. The marathon was a distant memory, I missed modern life and I wanted to go home. Antarctica pushed my emotions to limits I didn’t know I had – it’s an incredibly powerful place in which humans and human technology are ultimately powerless. This continent will let you leave when it decides it wants to, and there’s not a thing you can do about it.

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With my Dad – the third Father/Daughter pairing in history to run the seven continents

THAT Call
After a few false starts, 10 days after our arrival and five days late the storm made its way through and the weather cleared – there was a promising 11am update, then we had to wait until 8pm, then another update at 9pm, another at 10pm until finally, at 11pm with update number 5 the Captain called the flight. We stayed up through the night watching movies until the plane arrived at 05.20am, then it was to the runway – and home sweet home. Bye Bye Antarctica.

Welcome Back
Despite wanting to leave so desperately taking that final step off the continent and on to the plane is somewhat sad, knowing you’ll never likely return. Back home civilization and the hustle and bustle of the airport seems deafening in comparison to the crystal quiet of the ice. But once safely in the hotel that first bath, running water, toilets that flush, Internet, phone and everything else previously taken for granted now seems an extravagant luxury.

The Sickness
My Antarctic journey ended there, and my quest for the seventh continent with my Dad began. It was off back to Santiago and on to Vina Del Mar for the Costa Del Pacifico marathon. A virus and stomach bug had unfortunately been going round Antarctica, my Dad had caught it and now so had I. Verging on flu like systems accompanied with an inability to digest food properly made the prospect of running another marathon 10 days after Antarctica daunting to say the least.

Part Deux
A few tense days later and with a head full of sickness that wouldn’t shift, any doctor wouldn’t have let me run, unfortunately that wasn’t an option. So on to a 3.30am wake up call, a bus in the dark at 5.30am for a 7.30am marathon start I went.

The Second Marathon
Along with a stomach bug, a virus, 2x knackered IT bands and knees from running in the snow and seizing quads I started the grueling 26.2 mile course again. As per my fears the marathon was hell, I cried my way to the finish from mile 19 and sheer guts and a reliance on previous training are all that got me round.

The Seven Continents Marathon Club

The Seven Continents Marathon Club

Seven Continents Jubilation
BUT we did it! My Dad and I are now the third father-daughter pairing in history to run the seven continents. I proceeded to sneeze and cough my way back on the flight to Madrid where I wrote this blog.

Charity
I ran for the World Wildlife Fund and as per usual I was pleasantly surprised by the generosity of my peers in the world of SEO and online marketing, Many donated and spread the word about my adventure and even more – many who had never met me, along with friends and family, also donated. Thanks so much everyone! A target of £500 and an end fundraising total of £540 for the penguins was raised on my JustGiving page. And that’s where the story ends.

Home Sweet Home…

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