To the South Pole and back: Completing a marathon in treacherous terrains of Antarctica

Rupal crossing the finish line in Antarctica
Rupal Ramesh Shah crossing the Antarctica marathon finish line; Photo credit: Marathon Tours and Travel

Tanzanian Indian American Rupal Ramesh Shah writes about her recent marathon run in Antarctica. 

By Rupal Ramesh Shah

About a month ago, I completed what I think is the most brutal and epic marathon of my lifetime. Not only was the Antarctica marathon the coldest marathon that I have ever completed, but it also consisted of the highest number of hills.

In order to reach Antarctica, we had to fly through Argentina. In Argentina, we boarded our flight to Ushuaia, the southern-most city in the world, located in the province of Tierra del Fuego. Our 348-foot ship, the Akademik Ioffe, was waiting for us in Ushuaia. We boarded the 110-passenger ship and soon after started our voyage to Antarctica through the Drake Passage.

For me, it was certainly a rough start, as I experienced extreme nausea due to sea sickness. For the first 48 hours, I couldn’t keep anything in my body including water. With constant vomiting, I avoided eating and slept most of the time. Our ship was unlike the Royal Caribbean cruise ships, as it was much smaller, and any amount of movement could be easily felt. Since I had never experienced car or air sickness, I had assumed I wouldn’t experience any sea sickness. Well, the Ioffe proved me wrong! I was so sick during that journey that midway during presentations on the ship, I would walk to the front of the room so I could excuse myself out, only to throw up at the end of the hallway (in a bag of course). I am told that passing through the Drake Passage is always rough and for some people the experience is worse.

After about 48 hours, on the third day, I got out of bed as my sister’s voice echoed in my head. If I had to go home and tell my family that I couldn’t run the marathon because I was sea sick, I would be absolutely embarrassed. At that point, I was determined to utilize all the medications that the ship doctor prescribed at high (but safe!) doses to ensure I’d be ready for my marathon. It wasn’t until I finally applied a patch and took several motion relief pills that I started to feel better. I had one day to properly nourish my body and get prepared for the marathon.

I have never run a tougher course than the one in Antarctica. The marathon was organized on King George’s Island on the Russian base in such a way that we were running 2.18 miles back and forth. Unlike other marathon courses, this one had 10 hills within 2.18 miles, of which 5 were extremely steep! Since we were going back and forth on the 2.18-mile stretch, I encountered the same hills 12 times. The hills were so steep that going downhill was worse than uphill, as there was no way to accelerate and I felt that I would fall flat on my face at any minute.

The course, while not fully covered with snow, was certainly covered with sizable amounts of ice. As the morning went by and the sun continued to shine, the ice melted making the pathway extremely muddy. This made running tougher as I had never trained to run a marathon in the mud. The temperature on race day was approximately 30F. Although it was cold, it was sunny with almost no windchill, which certainly helped.

Unfortunately, the group of runners that ran the marathon the day before faced extreme wind chills of about 20F. At some point while they were running, there was hail! The weather the previous day was so brutal that more than 10 runners switched from running a marathon to a half marathon.

Rupal Ramesh Shah in Antarctica
Rupal Ramesh Shah in Antarctica; photo credit: Christi Childs

According to the race organizers, the day our group ran the race was the first time in 20 years that the weather had been perfect with no rain, no wind, no snow, moderate temperatures, and plenty of sunshine. I have to thank God for the good weather because, even as I heard about the race conditions that fellow runners encountered the previous day, I was convinced we would have similar weather conditions.

All in all, I completed the race, my 10th marathon, in about six and a half hours. I was very happy with my time as I had predicted a finish time of 8+ hours after I saw my fifth steep hill. Nevertheless, this victorious completion has come at a cost. I lost a few small toe nails days after the marathon and my big toe nails are now about to come off.

Days after the race, my fellow runners and I spent time exploring Antarctica. We saw many penguins, whales, and seals. I was in awe of the beauty of the glaciers. Everything in Antarctica looked like it was straight out of the National Geographic magazines.  It was natural, clean, and crisp. It was unadulterated, and surprisingly, human beings are doing their best to preserve the environment there. I am glad to see that humans have not colonized the continent and set up life there, except for the researchers who live there short term. Antarctica was truly one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places I have ever seen.

I can imagine that most people are curious about the weather in Antarctica. You’re probably even more curious about how a girl who keeps her heat at 80F and loves the sun survived in that weather! I had about four to six layers of clothes whenever we were out in Antarctica. The weather was usually in the single digits (under 10F). While I appreciated the natural beauty and wildlife in Antarctica, I certainly hated the cold. Perhaps because of that experience, I hate the cold even more now. I also know that I will never return to a place that cold to run a marathon again!

I have to be honest and confess that one dream remains unfulfilled as I have returned back from Antarctica. As I’d see the snow-covered hills and ice glaciers everywhere around us for multiple days, all I could think of was having a Bollywood photo shoot. Bollywood songs like Humko Hamise Churalo in which Aishwarya Rai is frolicking in the beautiful snow-covered ground in her beautiful saree have provided the inspiration for such dreams. Unfortunately, unlike Aishwarya Rai, I couldn’t even bear the cold with six layers of clothing, forget wearing a saree!

Rupal Ramesh Shah with Antarctica marathon medal
Rupal Ramesh Shah with Antarctica marathon medal; photo credit: Rupal Ramesh Shah

Many more adventures took place in Antarctica. An adorable couple got married in Antarctica and we were all there to witness their beautiful wedding. I bonded with about 100 runners on the ship, all of who were phenomenal and inspired me in more than one ways.

To elaborate, my roommate on the ship has completed a marathon in each state of the United States. Another friend has successfully completed over 50 half marathons. A very humble couple casually mentioned that each of them has completed over 130 marathons, which includes two marathons in each state of the US. A very fit runner, who is over 60 years old, has about 230 marathons under his belt. This was my 10th marathon, and to my family and friends, that sounds amazing and exciting. Compared to my fellow Antarctica marathoners, I am a novice! I was very humbled to meet such a unique group of runners.

We spent about 10 days on the ship and learned to live together. We became friends and many of us will be running similar races in the future in other countries. I have no doubt that I will be keeping in touch with my shipmates and fellow Antarctica marathoners for a long time to come.

The ship had no internet connectivity in Antarctica, so I had been out of touch from the world for several weeks. I have to admit: that did feel pretty good. It also gave me plenty of time to reflect and think about many aspects of my life right now. After successfully completing the Antarctica marathon, I feel like I can accomplish anything I set my mind to. I have many other goals in life, and I look forward to focusing on those.

For anyone that is thinking of running a marathon, don’t doubt yourself! If I can do it, anyone can do it. Life is short and most of the time we regret what we don’t do, not what we do. I am thankful for this amazing and unforgettable experience.

(Rupal Ramesh Shah is a Tanzanian Indian American who currently lives in Boston. She is a microbiologist with a public health background.  Her writings are usually focused on her work in global health as well as her marathons. She also writes journalistic pieces for street newspapers that cover stories related to homelessness and poverty-related issues.)

One Comment

  1. Sarabjeet Kalra

    What exactly is a tanszanian Indian american?????????????? how do you identify it.. It got special markings like a leopard or what? Stop being so frrikkin PC… no one cares about this stuff or her marathon!!

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