Racing at the Bottom of the World

Racing at the Bottom of the World

Antarctica might be one of the most inhospitable places on the planet, but it didn’t stop one Club Member lacing up his running shoes for a race there.

The lowest temperature ever recorded is minus 89.2 degrees Celsius, at a Soviet Antarctic research station in 1983. As the coldest, windiest and driest continent on earth, with blizzards and whiteouts that can rage for days on end, Antarctica doesn’t seem the obvious spot for a multistage footrace.

But it’s to this southern region, which British explorer Captain Robert Scott once referred to as “an awful place,” that Member Chris Lewis ventured to take part in the six-day Last Desert race in November.

“We were lucky, our coldest day was about minus 5 [degrees Celsius],” Lewis says. “We were running through snow, which could be ankle-deep or thigh-deep. That was very tough.” One event in the so-called 4 Deserts race series, the Last Desert requires runners to have first completed at least two of the other races. Lewis had already run all three: the Sahara Race, Chile’s Atacama Crossing and China’s Gobi March, his first-ever 250-kilometer, multistage race, in 2003.

The 62-year-old Welshman has now completed 25 long-distance, multiday races around the world, including 15 organized by 4 Deserts.

“I do them for two reasons,” he explains. “One, because you have to maintain a certain level of fitness, and, two, because they do take you to some fantastic parts of the world. I’ve been to parts of China, for example, other tourists would never go to: the wilds of Gansu province and Xinjiang province. They’re way off the tourist track.”

Lewis and the other 60 competitors set sail from Ushuaia, in southern Argentina, aboard a former Royal Dutch Navy research ship for the two-day voyage to the Antarctic Peninsula, moving each day to a different location and running circuit.

“While competitors stay on a ship instead of in tents, the conditions are much more unpredictable and even more extreme than in the other 4 Deserts races,” says Samantha Fanshawe of 4 Deserts.

The race is also considerably more expensive (nearly $13,000 versus almost $4,000). “That was probably a once-in-a-lifetime trip because it is such a long way away,” Lewis says. “The scenery in general was much more impressive than I was expecting. In fact, there are a lot of real rocky bluffs and you could see significant mountains from the ship.”

By the end of the sixth and final stage, the lawyer had completed 184 kilometers, some of them in the presence of local wildlife. “The last day was a very beautiful day,” he says. “The background was spectacular, with penguin colonies just to add some fun.”

With the stamp from the Russian Antarctic base barely dry in his passport, Lewis already has his race calendar set. This year will see him tackle lung-busting, multistage races in Hawaii, Albania and Patagonia.

“This kind of race is a fantastic experience,” he says. “Clearly, you’re not going to get off your couch today and do one of these, but if you’re moving in that direction, I would thoroughly recommend them.”

Words: Nick Jones