As it transpired our delay turned out to be an additional 5 days at the Union Glacier camp as successive weather fronts moved in over the continent from the sea. This weather was atypical of the continent at this time of year, and the reason it was proving so troublesome to us was that it brought in warmer moist air resulting in cloud, poor visibility and snow. The Ilyushin required a combination of a clear weather window of about 8 hours, visibility of 22km and winds no higher than 35 knots. There was also a weather dependency back in Punta Arenas: wind. Punta Arenas is known to be windy and we had had a little taste of that before coming out. Ironically, as the weather improved in Antarctica there was an issue with high winds (apparently gusting to 50 knots) back in Punta Arenas. It was a waiting game until the right combination of conditions came up.
Each day we were given at least 1 and sometimes 2 update briefings on the changing situation. The weather, or rather the delay resulted in varying responses from the group. There were moments of frustration and anxiety, ups and downs. Some fretted about being away from work and business for longer than anticipated, others missed family and loved ones, most of us worried at some point about the cost of the delays. We all had little ups and downs, and I suspect that most of us at some point just craved some quite time away from the group irrespective of the fact that we all got on well together. We were able to retreat to the other mess tent used mainly by the staff for a bit of quiet and a change of scene and company. I certainly had a couple of lows as I came down off my adrenalin high; and, in spite of best efforts, got a little stressed over my own travel problems when Iberia refused to change my tickets and I was faced with the prospect of being stuck in Chile until it could be resolved and money found. I am sure Alasdair also got a bit stressed having a teary wife on the other end of a satellite phone.
In the meanwhile the weather did its thing. The night of Sunday 24th was another stormy one. The notice board in the mess tent informed us that there had been 25 knot winds overnight. It was also very cold. I spent most of the night in pain, not as one would expect from the exertions I had subjected my body to, but with my sinuses. I subsequently learned that this is not uncommon in this environment.
As the fronts passed through we got the ‘sucker holes’. These are the brief windows of better or good weather conditions that often sucker people into embarking on journeys or activities thinking that the weather has cleared, only to be caught out by the bad conditions returning. We were safe and looked after in our camp with a meteorologist and experienced staff, with clear guidelines for checking out and back in and taking radio if we were leaving camp based upon the prevailing conditions at any given point. We saw how important this was one afternoon when someone went out for walk to the Christmas tree, got disorientated and took the wrong route back to the camp along the still flagged 10km loop. When he did not return within the expected time it was noted and people went out on vehicles to find him and bring him back unscathed.
The weather was certainly providing excellent photo opportunities. The landscape and camp were constantly changing with the light and snow; at times a vision of contrast if vibrant, sparkling and clean azures whites and silvers; at others a dramatic and brooding mass of murky greys and creams occasionally punctuated by a watery sun or a break of crepuscular rays through the cloud.
By the Tuesday, 26th November, the weather was settling and the sucker holes becoming more frequent and prolonged, giving everyone an opportunity to get out and about. Between activities laid on by the camp and ones initiated by the group we were kept entertained both indoors and out throughout; but the bright sunny breaks certainly lifted us, and gave us the opportunity to really indulge in the outdoor amusements.
There was overland skiing, crevasse rescue, igloo building, table tennis, chess, board games, a quiz night, films, yoga, circuits, cricket, football and volleyball.
One of the more bizarre activities was the ‘skantie’ dash that was done during the ultra. How bizarre and surreal would it have been to have come through the camp at that point? I am sure I would have been convinced it was another hallucination.
These days were an unexpected and precious bonus. They provided me with an imposed period of rest and recovery that I otherwise might not have had. My original schedule had had me returning home on 26th and 27th and straight back to work on the 28th. They also provided me with what was probably some much needed downtime, giving me the opportunity to reflect on aspects of my work and life that were in need of attention. My life is full and busy and I don’t often get complete downtime without distraction.
My physical recovery was better and quicker than I had expected. I got my first night of decent sleep the night after the 100km. That was followed by a rather sickly day on the Sunday when I struggled to eat and felt dizzy and nauseous for much of the day, but that was to be expected. The good thing was that there was no stiffness and no aches and pains appearing. My knee was niggling a little and my hip flexors were tight: I seemed to have got off lightly. By Tuesday I was back to eating as normal and feeling good albeit with an underlying tiredness, but it was that satisfying type of tired that you get after a good physical effort and achievement. I went out for a walk out to just beyond the Christmas tree and back just to test out the legs. It was glorious, so peaceful and silent. I basked in the warmth of the sun as its heat reflected off the snow which was sparkling in the light. I marvelled at how in sub zero temperatures it was possible to feel so warm as I removed my down jacket, hat and gloves, and put my silk scarf over my head to protect it from the sun.
By the next day, Wednesday 27th(our final day), I was ready for a short and tentative run. In similar sunny conditions, but colder by a good few degrees I headed back out along that familiar route to the Christmas tree: one last chance to run in this stunning landscape. The forecast was good and there was a high chance that the plane would be coming in at some point later in that night, so time to say my farewells to the white continent. It was a gentle slow lope of a recovery run, only a couple of miles, and it felt good. I was aware of fatigued and tight muscles, especially my hip flexors, and that now familiar niggle in my right knee but it did not mar the experience in any way; and if anything added to it. My body was tired but not broken and ready to make that first step back to routine. This seemed like the perfect thing to do on my last day and round off my Antarctic running experience.
On the final day there was an excursion out to the elephant hill near the blue ice runway and a short trek up the valley giving us the chance to see and explore the geography and geology of the area. True to form some cloud came down again, and there was a fair wind out at the hill. We had to keep well wrapped and covered.
There were pools of frozen melt water that even under the cloud were a brilliant blue and which had air bubbles frozen into them: incredible and fascinating. The rocky valley was a bit of a scramble reminding me a bit of the scramble over the top of Schiehallion. The hill is called elephant head for the obvious reason that when viewed from a certain angle it looks like an elephant’s head with the ear, eye and trunk clearly distinguishable. As we clambered up the valley we were all amazed by the variety of rocks and stones that we were seeing and even with our untrained eyes could see what forces had been at work to create such rocks. The variety of texture, colour and form was unlike anything I had seen elsewhere. It was a rare and privileged opportunity to see an area of our planet that is not often visited.
For me the highlight of these post 100km days had to be the presentation on the Tuesday evening. The improving weather had enabled the camp staff to ‘tidy up’ the camp area and as part of that they created an ‘Ice Bar’ from the remains of the Antarctic Ice marathon ice sculpture. They surrounded it with the nations’ flags and in the evening before dinner served mulled wine. This was the backdrop for the presentations.
Petr, the overall winner appeared to receive his prize attired only in a pair of Armani trunks, much to everyone’s entertainment and amusement. Not being quite such an exhibitionist and not having the body of an elite athlete I opted for the rather more conventional clothed appearance, which must have been quite a relief to everyone. (I won’t mention the scarf and medal modelling photo shoot).
Now, I had been guaranteed first lady by being the only lady in the 100km. It could be argued that that meant it was a rather hollow win, if indeed it could even be called a win. I was unsure just how I felt about it. Could it be called a win? One of the other marathon runners pointed out that I had been the only woman brave enough to toe the line which made me a winner. She had a point. Also I had acquitted myself well. I came 3rd and in a pretty decent time (not a course record, but the 2nd fastest). I allowed myself to feel like a winner, and I allowed myself the pleasure of that feeling because, let’s face it, I am never likely to win anything else. I am under no illusions there. Once home, I will still be old and slow, running at the back of the pack.
It was also at that point that what I had actually achieved finally hit home. Somehow, and rather against the odds, I had not only managed to get to the event, but I had managed to get my training right and get my fitness to a level where I could not only complete the races but complete at a level way beyond my expectations: and if truth be told beyond everyone else’s expectations. One person I know had initially expected me to not make it to the start line; and another had told me to pretty much expect to be the tail end Charlie (last). So, yes, I was going to allow myself a soupcon of glory.
Finally, by Wednesday evening we knew that the Ilyushin was coming. We were all ready to leave, perhaps some more than others, but the experience had to come to an end. We had been lucky and privileged. We had been given 5 additional days to experience this unique place something that previous participants had not had and I think we all knew that, even those who had been frustrated and fretting about not getting home sooner. Our bags were packed, weighed and taken off to the runway, our tents were emptied; our last dinner was served, we took those last photos, had that last walk round the camp and then waited for a glimpse of the Ilyushin as it approached the runway. The plane was so big that you could spot it from a long distance and clearly see it’s decent over and past the hills. Then it was into the vehicles and off to the runway, where we waited in the icy wind and sunlight to board the plane and start the journey back to the reality of everyday life. But one thing was certain for me, there were going to be some changes. I had not figured out exactly how, but I had figured out what needed to change and more or less where I wanted to get to.
Back in Punta Arenas and deposited in various hostels and hotels we started that process of returning to normality. I phoned home to finalise and confirm my travel arrangements; took a shower; dug out my ‘civvies’; re-packed and then headed out for a last wander around Punta Arenas before meeting up with everyone for a last drink and to bid our farewells. Rather a lot of Pisco sours later I returned to the hostel to grab few hours of sleep before heading to the airport and the 30 plus hour journey home made bearable by the thought of being home to share my adventure with my loved ones and friends. The Antarctic Odyssey was complete.