The Antarctic Odyssey was the start of my journey into adventure racing and blogging. I wrote a series of post that charted my adventure from start to completion of my Antarctic Odyssey. This post is part of the series.
It has taken me a while to write this entry, but I wanted to do it justice and so have waited until I felt ready and there was enough quiet time available to write. This was perhaps one of the most amazing and influential days of my life. It sits there with my wedding day, the birth of my beautiful and amazing daughters, and the day Alasdair’s white blood count finally lifted above 0.0 after his bone marrow transplant. I never doubted that I would finish the 100km, the question was how? Had I over done things in the marathon and gone too hard and burnt too much energy? Would I be crawling in, beaten and broken in 20+ hours, or would I plod in roundabout 20 hours, or maybe even trot in within my own target of about 19 hours. My mother said she knew I would finish even if I was literally crawling on my hands and knees, and she was not the only one who expressed that sentiment. Anyone who knows me knows my passion and determination, and its capacity for self-destruction. Just 6 months earlier Alasdair had watched helplessly as I pushed myself to breaking and beyond at the Highland Fling (and that was only 53 miles run in fair conditions).
It had been another wild and cold night in camp with 25 knot winds blowing through. Not only was that loud but it caused the metal air vent between the skins of the tent to clatter and ruin any hope of sleep as long as it continued. We eventually managed to silence it by padding it with a towel, but little or no sleep was had and I eventually gave up and headed to the mess tent roundabout 6am. I was restless and nervous. There was to be a briefing at 11am to give us an update on the weather and confirm if the 100km was to start at 2pm. I needed to distract myself with my morning routine and chat with the other early birds.
After several cups of green tea, I made up my drink of coconut water, fruit juice and L-Carnitine that I would drink half of over the morning and keep the rest for the race. Then I had a big breakfast of pancakes, bacon and scrambled eggs, some fruit, toast with cheese and marmalade and coffee. After breakfast I went to the doctors’ tent to get some painkillers for my knee and to have my blisters checked. I was not worried about my knee. I knew it was not a mechanical joint problem: it was the pull on one of the tendons caused by my inner thigh muscles being tight. Then it was back to my tent to sort out my clothing, footwear, gels and nutrition. It was the usual round of analysis paralysis and indecision about what to wear in what combination, how many tops and socks would be needed; how many of each gel, how much soup to get made up. The reality was that it did not matter. Coming through camp with every loop meant that even if I found there was something missing in the mess tent, it was just a short walk to the tent to get it. Too much or too many of things was not a problem either: it would just sit in the mess tent.
I wandered back to the mess tent about 10.30am. Richard came up to me and quietly said I should go eat some pasta. I looked at him and neither of us said anything more. Ok, we were good to go, and right enough at 11 it was confirmed. There was going to be a big enough window in the weather to enable the 100km to go ahead. The course would not be groomed and the going underfoot was going to be hard with a lot of soft and at times deep snow. We were reminded about all the safety points; our gloves and the need to have spares to change into; keeping our sunglasses or goggles on; keeping our bodies warm and dry and ensuring that we had spare clothes to change into; ‘you sweat, you die’ was not said in jest and was not to be taken lightly; feet too; and we were reminded how important is was going to be to eat and keep our core warm to protect our internal organs as well as our energy up. Richard’s advice: don’t fight the terrain. If there are sections where it is better to walk; walk. Don’t fight it.
It was going to be about -12 when we started out. When I have run in temperatures like that at home in winter I have usually just gone with a single winter running kit layer plus an outer shell, and no mid layer as was being advised. I had a quick word with Hannah who had been briefing us and she was happy for me to start out like that, and to just keep aware and have the layers available to add as and when needed. It was time now to get organised; get changed, double check my clothing and food and set it out in the mess tent, and to feed myself.
My nutrition was always going to be a concern. I had put significant effort into training myself to eat during runs and finding foods that my body could tolerate during hard effort; I knew from the outset that I would need to adapt what had become my normal ultra eating plan and be able to substitute. I had discussed this with my nutritionist, and we had determined that I would need to be flexible based upon what was available. I had gels, energy drink, espresso shot cans, chicken noodle soup, bread, hot drinks and all the usual snacks such as chocolate, dried fruit and biscuits. I would be fine, and all I had to do was pile in as much as I could and hope that my stomach would hold out.
Pasta would not normally be my food of choice pre-race: normally it would be rice or potato based meal. What should I do? I considered not eating as I had had a big breakfast. No, that would be a bad move, I needed to eat and my window of opportunity was getting smaller with every minute of procrastination. If pasta was all that was available, then it would have to be pasta. I took a small bowl full with some cheese.
The mess tent was so crowded and busy. I passed a couple of packets of chicken noodle soup into the kitchen for them to make up for me, and asked if it would be possible to have some bread available too. I asked to borrow a measuring jug from them, and started to prepare my drinks and put together a drop bag for the unmanned shelter at the 5km point. There was not much space and so I was trying to do this at one of the tables. People at the table were interested in what I used and how I put it together and were asking questions and chatting. They meant well, but it was overwhelming me and distracting me from my task and I was worried that I would get the mix wrong. I then could not find a spot to set up my things. There was supposed to be a table for us, but it was difficult to move people and clear one especially as it was coming up for lunchtime.
The panic started to rise inside me, and I started to get too hot and sweat. The noise and hubbub became too loud. Now that I look back I realise that the other 100km runners were not in the mess tent, with the exception of Petr, our elite world champion tri-athlete. He was sitting calm and cool reading a book, just letting the world pass by him. I recall at the time being slightly envious and thinking that that was one of the key differences between the trained elite athlete and the likes of me. He was calm and focused and in his comfort zone. It is all about the zone. That is why the others were in their tents.
This was not one of my better moments. I sat on a bench on the back wall of the tent and felt the tears beginning to well up. I needed to get a grip. Right, what did I need? I needed to get all my things together in one place where I knew I could get them and that they would be left alone: a box. If I could get a box I could stash everything in it and tuck it in a corner. I asked if there was a spare plastic crate: there was. Soon everything was safely stowed in the crate, and my drop bag made up and sent out. It was all a bit too late for my head though, and the nerves did not settle. I sat and the tears started to come. At that point Fran, one of the camp staff spotted that I was in trouble. She came and sat with me, gave me a hug and re-assured me, checked that I had everything set up and was a wonderfully calming influence. She said that she would be around until late and would help to support me. I calmed down and focused on double checking my kit box and taking fluids.
Before I knew it, it was 1.40pm. One of the other runners handed me his goggles advising that they would not fog up. It was essential that I keep my wind nipped cheeks covered and the only way to do that was goggles and mask. I had my own goggles, but Alex was offering the re-assurance that with his goggles I would have one less problem to worry about. I put on my number, switched on my Garmin, put my earphones on and got the MP3 player set, got my hat and gloves and headed outside to acclimatise ready for the start. As the minutes passed we gathered at the start, 6 intrepid ultra-runners: one elite athlete; one near elite (who was coached by the elite) and the rest of us: experienced runners all, but probably at the limit of our experience. I was the only woman, and all bar one of the guys had finished well ahead of me in the marathon. Petr had won the marathon and Daniel had come 3rd. My expectation and probably everyone else’s was that I would be at the back of the field. We would probably be spread out and all running on our own.
A good crowd had gathered to send us off. The guys placed me in the middle of the line-up for photos. Richard called us forward. I set my MP3 going. We were off. It was not too cold and it was not too windy. There was a light breeze, fine snow falling and ok visibility, but not the long clear vistas and views that we had previously experienced. Mark the camp meteorologist joined us. He had run the race a number of times before and was a previous winner, an experienced Antarctic runner. He and Petr set a good pace and pulled away. Mark was not intending to do the full race, and in the end, not enjoying the conditions, stopped after 2 laps. The rest of us were content to take it easy and stayed in fairly close group with short distances between us as we settled into the run, and started to realise just how difficult the terrain was going to be. On the back straight of the loop we met the team setting up the emergency aid stop. It was not quite ready, but they stopped the skidoo and helped us get our supplies. I took a gel. The aim was to take a gel at that point on every loop as that would guarantee 30g of energy.
I felt good. There were no aches and pains or stiffness and my energy levels felt fine too. Soon I spotted the little Christmas tree and knew that I was just 2km to finish my first loop. As I came into camp a horn sounded, there was a whoop from the folks spectating, and Sarah, Martin and Flick were on hand to help me get what I needed. This was a quick stop as I was not too sweaty so did not need to change anything. I got some fluid and food in and set out.
We had all used that first lap to get a feel for the course and the terrain. It was now time to settle in for the long haul. I was going to stick with my run walk plan, but not the regular 12 minutes run and 3 minutes walking that I had used in the marathon. My running and walking intervals would be determined by the conditions underfoot, and I knew that the long back straight was going to be the problem with the wind, which although light was going to have an effect, and the soft snow that was quite deep in places. My own senses from my training on the sand and trails told me not to waste energy, and Richard’s words were there in my head too; don’t fight the terrain. Just as I turned onto the back straight Daniel overtook me, and put on quite a spurt to put some distance between us. He was making a point, and do you know what, he was free to. As tempting as it was to increase my effort and stick with him, it was not the sensible thing to do, especially not in these conditions. Instead I focused on my music and the messages of support that I had all providing that link back home to friends and family.
As I was nearing the end of lap 2 an old nemesis made its presence felt; gastric distress. Oh no! This really was not the time and place. I would have to knock this on the head. As I reached camp I headed straight to the toilet block whilst calling out for soup. I also need to find the doctor and ask for some medication for my gut but also pain relief just to keep things at bay in my knee. I got into the mess tent and there was some confusion as my soup was nowhere to be found. I took some sweet tea and then some clear chicken broth that they found which had been made up for one of the other runners, Tom. I fretted: was it Ok to take Tom’s soup? They said it would fine, more could be made and by the next round my soup would be ready. I was quite damp now too, so I changed my base layer and gloves and they guys said they would get the wet ones dried off. The doctor gave me some Imodium and said she would leave some more and some painkillers in my box, neither of which I used. Now it was time for lap3.
Lap 3 was uneventful, I was walking what seemed like large sections of the back straight and the visibility had closed in considerably, it was practically a white out. There was nothing to focus on other than the flags marking the route and nothing to provide any discernible sense of location other than the emergency aid tent and the Christmas tree which only became visible within a short range. I was beginning to feel a little tired, and I sensed that I probably was not eating enough. I ploughed on with my music for company. As I got into camp I asked if the visibility was as bad as I thought, the answer was yes. This time I got some chicken noodle soup, a bit of bread and some biscuits, but I knew that I was probably not consuming enough; that age old problem that we had worked so hard to rid me of. I grabbed an extra gel too and the replenished the small drink bottle I was carrying in my pocket. Mike the photographer had said not to go all the way into the mess tent as I would get too warm, so I camped in the little atrium area where would normally leave out jackets etc.
Lap 4 was not a good lap. I was tired and realised that I was just not getting enough energy in. That long back straight was messing with my head and proving a challenge. I felt that with every lap I was walking more and more of it. The music and messages were not helping much: time for my ‘you can do it Arthur’ mantra that Robin had given me. It helped a bit but I needed more. In my head I called out to people at home, asking for encouragement and strength. I really needed to buck up. Then I heard a noise and it was Petr lapping me. He called out encouragement as he passed. I supposed that I had done quite well to last just over 3.5 laps before he lapped me; right better press on and stop feeling sorry for myself. I reached camp in a sorry state mentally and physically, but did manage to find my sense of humour and called out to Richard and Fearghal; ‘Surely, there must be something better to do on a Friday night in Antartica than this FFS’. That was a marathon in the bag but I had another 1.5 marathons to go.
The team took me in hand. It was definitely too warm to go into the tent again, and Mike insisted I stay in the atrium, and that I take a slightly longer stop to stock up on food and change. He said that this was a crucial point in the race and that what I did now would probably determine how the rest of the race would go for me. It was dinner time in camp and he advised that I needed to take a decent break this time and get food down me. He knew I had not been eating enough, so I had to warm, up eat and change. I realised too that my feet were pretty cold and wet. Footwear and clothing were peeled off me and more put on. Mike rubbed my feet warm and put on fresh socks and my back up shoes. Thank goodness I had taken 2 pairs out. I tried to eat an assortment of things, a half biscuit, a few gulps of soup and bread, a bit of chocolate. Mike suggested some dinner: no, I could not manage that. He went away and appeared back with a plate of cake and chocolate sauce. It was warm and very sweet, but I wolfed it down. That hit the spot. Next thing, he was chasing me to get going again. He had seen enough people doing this over the years to know what I had to do, so I was not going to argue. Somehow in melee my face mask had disappeared, but they found another one that had been left lying about. No one would bother if I borrowed it, they may not even notice.
I felt a lot more positive as I headed out on lap 5, warm, dry and fuelled. I ploughed on through the snow. The snowfall was not letting up any and the visibility was still awful. I just had to follow those flags and notch them off one by one. As I turned onto the back straight Cynid Lauper started to come through the headphones, ah what the hell, there was no one about, so I started to sing along. That worked as a good distraction and I had a run of good songs. Back into camp and this time I went into the mess tent. There was applause and a big whoop and a cheer from everyone. It was getting quieter and there were fewer people, and I remember thinking it was getting late. I added a layer as I had felt the temperature dropping during that lap. Mike said it would get quite a bit colder as it was now moving into nigh time and he warned that I would need to be careful and watch out for getting wet and be sure to change. The guys made sure I knew where everything was. They were not sure how much longer they would be up and around.
Lap 6 passed pretty much as lap 5 had, but I noticed a real difference when I got into camp this time. Even fewer people, but still a great big welcoming cheer as I got in and plenty of encouragement and support as well as people checking to make sure my clothing was not too wet and that I was eating. Soup and bread seemed to be the order of the day, and pringles.
Lap 7 was another bad one, not helped by the fact that I now had to walk some of the section before the turn onto the back straight as well as most of the back straight. I was beginning to feel deeply fatigued and it was starting to hurt. I was into muscle burning now. I sang along to my music, I shouted out my mantras and called out desperately to my loved ones back home to little avail: pathetic really. Then, Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here, started to play. Briony had chosen that for me. She would have so loved to be here, and her was I whinging and feeling sorry for myself. What did I expect? This was as it should be. I was having the full on Antarctic experience and actually managing not too badly, so get a shift on and get on with it and enjoy it. Next thing Petr lapped me for the 2nd time: wow. He asked me what lap I was on and I told him. He said I was doing well and to keep it up. I asked if he was on lap 9 and he said no lap 10. Wow, lucky sod. That should have been hugely depressing but in a weird way it was not. I seemed to draw a degree of strength and determination from it. I realised that the visibility had improved a bit because as I came down towards the Christmas tree I could see Petr closing on in the finish and a skidoo coming out to meet him and escort him across the line to win. He had won both races, now that was a serious achievement.
When I arrived in the camp Petr was still in the tent. I congratulated him and went to sort myself out. One of the doctors came and checked me and Tom’s wife Kat came to help too along with Yvonne. I said that I was muscle burning now as Katriona, one of the doctors, checked me over. She was concerned that I needed to take more food. Petr came over to advise but also to give me encouragement. He said I was well inside my target and if I could keep going at my current rate should finish roundabout 17.30. Katriona insisted that I take an energy gel; there was no arguing she pulled one from my bag opened it and handed it to me. She also shoved one in my pocket and told me I had to take it. Petr also gave me some amino acid tablets which he said would help, and told me to use what was left of his supplied out at the 5km station.
Three more laps to go, less than a marathon. As I started out on lap 8 Fearghal who was keeping time said; ‘I don’t know what you are doing Audrey, but just keep doing it’. Oh. Ok. I was definitely getting slower and walking more, but no need to get despondent. It would take as long as it takes. The visibility had closed again and some of the flags were starting to disappear. Hmm, that was worrying. If I don’t get a move on it could be a bit tricky. Then about 2/3rds of the way along the straight I spotted people over to my right. That was odd? Hey, maybe some of the guys from the camp had come out in the opposite direction to run a lap. Some had said they might, but why were they over there. Had I wandered of the track bit? I glanced down but was still next to the flags. I looked back and the others had gone. Then I realised I had been hallucinating. Cripes! I knew that could happen, but had not expected it.
Back in camp Katriona started to force feed me gels. Yvonne made me some hot chocolate. Petr was still there providing quiet encouragement. My nose and top lip felt a bit numb then tingly so I got it checked but it was fine. I put on fresh socks. My tops were damp but fine. I just had 2 laps to go. I saw Malek in the tent this time. He must have finished. I said well done. Right, back out for lap 9 and then back to the tent for the last time. I was beyond eating now and just so tired. Katriona shoved 2 gels down more, practically force feeding me. She asked Petr what else I should take. He said nothing, other than some crisps/pringles and that I would get through the last lap OK. They took a final check of my clothing to ensure it was not too wet and let me head back out.
I setting out on my final lap. I could hardly believe it. I had no idea what time of day it was or what my time was as my Garmin had given up long since and I had not bothered to start the one that Flick had lent me. Miraculously the visibility had lifted and as I reached the end of the camp and the little airstrip I got the most amazing open view out to the hills. Wow! Wow on so many levels. My last lap, a stunning view and dramatic light and I would finish the double, the first Scot to do it. I actually stopped to drink in the view and the moment. A few tears and a few deep breaths and I set off again with a lightness in my step that I had not felt since the first couple of laps. The views along the back straight were stunning also. I could see the surrounding mountain ranges majestic and brooding, I could see the camp and the twin otters sitting on the airfield, I could see the Christmas tree from quite a distance off too. What a difference now that I had bearing and something other than the flags to focus on, I upped my pace desperate now to finish. I passed the Christmas tree for the last time and set out along my last mile with a fine soundtrack: Sugarman Sixto Rodriguez with I Wonder; Cyndi Lauper, All Through the Night; and finally, a Waterboys cover of Alasdair favourite Van Morrison Track, Sweet Thing. What a soundtrack!
As I approached the finish I spotted that there was no one around. The few hardy stalwarts that had stayed up all night must still be in the mess tent. I knew that Mike and Dave (the cameraman) had gone to bed, but where were Richard and Fearghal? They must be in the van. As I got closer I realised they weren’t in the van. That was odd. What should I do? Well, I was going to have my moment regardless. I grabbed the saltire from the side of the finish and crossed the line. Hmm, Ok now what? I burst into the mess tent waving my flag, to shouts of surprise and congratulations. Richard and Fearghal had popped in for a cup of coffee expecting me to take about another 20 minutes: luckily Fearghal had spotted me waving the saltire through the window. My laps had all been consistent times (even though it had not felt like that to me), but somehow I had managed to knock 15 minutes off my last lap! Finish time 17.19.51.
I sat down not quite knowing what to do and not quite believing what I had achieved. It all seemed quite surreal. I had been up for over 24 hours and run 100km. Fran was up and helped me sort myself out, taking off some layers and getting some nice warm dry socks on. She even massaged my feet for a few minutes. One of the marathon runners, Mike, made me some green tea and I just lay back across three chairs completely and utterly spent, but with a warm glow building inside me. Richard came up and congratulated me and gave me my medal informing me that I was 3rd, and offering me his satellite phone if I wanted to phone home.
Wait a minute, what do you mean 3rd? I thought I was last. No, Malek and Tom were still to finish and Maciej other had stopped after 50km. When I had seen Malek in the tent a couple of laps earlier, he had been taking a break. Apparently he still had 3 laps to do and was just taking his time. How could I have got so confused?
I had some breakfast and then Fran kindly went to my tent and got my bag with my fresh clothes and boots so that I could have a shower. That had to be one of the best showers ever, I made sure it was good and hot by not dropping any ice in the hot water as I drew it; and my lucky day there was a half bucket of warm water left by someone else, so I was able to take a slightly longer shower. Time for a Hobbit breakfast: I needed more food. After my shower I went back to the mess tent which was filling up as people came for breakfast. I got lots of congratulations from people, and I was able to see Tom finish and congratulate him too. Tired but not sleepy, I decided to keep myself going for most of the day in the hope that I would sleep that night. After a fabulous lunch of meatloaf and mash I went to my tent and got a few hours of sleep before returning to the mess tent to chill out and keep refueling.
Time now to settle back and enjoy the extra time we were about to get in Antarctica due to the weather and to reflect upon what I had just done, and how it will affect my life. Time to relax and go with the flow, something I had not done for a long time. A sense of calm was settling in. I knew at some point I would probably experience the post event low, and that I would probably have a degree of stress over travel depending on how long we were delayed, but for now I was going to bask in the afterglow, the calm and reflection.