The morning of the White Continent Marathon, the race director, Steve Hibbs, woke us up by blasting tunes. He played AC/DC’s Thunderstruck through the campground over a loud speaker to get us going. We had a whole hour to get ready, but five minutes before the race start, everyone was still in the tents avoiding the cold.
Steve walked around the tents yelling: “Time to get to the start line! Anyone who wants to race today, get to the start line.” Most races just sound a horn and you’d better be there for it, so it was comical to hear Steve treating us like kids who hadn’t gotten out of bed for school. My tentmates and I reluctantly crawled out into the cold air. Once the rest joined, the gun sounded and we were off.
The course was a 4.25-mile loop of muddy, rocky trail with several hills that felt big, even though they were less than 200 feet each. It was snowing when we started out, so the course was mottled with white. There were black mountains along the skyline with spots of snow all along them. In a few places, icy blue-grey lakes reflected the mountains and low-hanging fog that was glowing as the sun rose.
The course was so beautiful, I hardly noticed the first three laps pass in just over two hours. By the fourth lap, I was ahead of everyone else in the race and starting to gain a reputation as the Energizer Bunny of the group. Since it was an out-and-back, I was passing and lapping people constantly. We were all friendly after our long wait together in Punta Arenas, so the other runners cheered me on each time we’d meet, especially since they knew I was the only one trying for 50 miles.
I finished the first marathon in four hours and nine minutes, which made me happy mostly because I could run 12-minute miles the rest of the way and still make my goal time of nine hours. I tried to stay below this to buy myself even more time. Each time my Garmin showed me I’d run a mile in nine or ten minutes, I’d add a mark to my mental tally of miles I could take as slowly as I wanted. I’d held out on using GPS tracking watches for a long time, but now it was coming in handy.
After 30 miles, the laps started to feel tougher, but not by much. My legs just felt heavier than they’d started out. After 40 miles, I felt even better than at 30. That’s when I knew I’d make it. Normally, I’d feel a shot of excitement rush through me at this realization, but I didn’t this time. I’d been running strong the whole race and I wanted to finish that way. I had no doubt I’d reach the end, but I still had work to do to finish with the best time possible.
It was snowing even harder now and the wind was right in my face. It looked like a space shuttle flying by stars so fast they appear as streams of light, except I had streams of white snowflakes rushing past me. I felt a tinge of wanting to slow down, especially when my iPod Shuffle died. I wasn’t in too much pain, but I’d been running for hours at the same clip, over the same clunky rocks and climbing the same hills sticky with mud. My mind was starting to think enough work had been done and it was time for a rest.
I wasn’t ready to slow down though. I wanted to finish and practically collapse on the floor because I’d left everything on the course. Only then would I know I’d done enough. This was the last stage in my journey to run a +50-mile ultramarathon on every continent. I wasn’t just running for today. I was running to celebrate a multi-year pursuit that had taken me all around the world and taught me more than I could ever have imagined starting out.
At the turnaround point before my last lap, I grabbed my iPhone, wrapped it in plastic to protect it from the snow, and turned on some music for a final boost. I ate a few Pringles and pretzels as quickly as I could before heading out. There were a few people left on the course who were walking the marathon or running the 50-kilometer race. They knew I was getting towards the end, so they cheered me on as I passed and encouraged me to finish strong.
I crossed the finish line after 8 hours and 35 minutes, my second best 50-mile time and best ever time on a trail. I was the only one in my category, so there was no one to compare my performance to. But it was better that way, as it highlighted that the true race is with oneself.
There was a penguin standing by the finish line across from Steve, who handed me my medal. In addition to being adorable, it reminded me why I’d set my seven continents goal in the first place. Each region of the world is so different. While you can find a few places you like and focus your time there, it’s worthwhile to at least get a sense of how varied the world can be. I figured that running an ultramarathon on each continent would let me see what life is like around the world outside of the tourist circuit. It would take me to places most people have never heard of, and show me how the sport I love adapts to different cultures. In that regard, the journey lived up to every expectation, leaving me eager to explore even more.