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The Last Desert, Stage 2

Matt Cavanaugh

Yesterday I saw a Gentoo penguin attack a Hungarian dentist, and a cop from Abu Dhabi come to her aid. Just for some context.

Oh, and I finished first yesterday—I had 2 kilometers on the guy behind me. 

The tough thing about this race is that nothing’s certain. You’ll get all geared up and ready to go, then get waved off, sometimes for hours at a time. We were supposed to depart on the Zodiacs at 2 p.m., but the weather rolled in and it seemed a certainty that we wouldn’t go out at all. (And honestly, the dark sky made me think, “yeah, I don’t want to run in that, this nice warm ship feels pretty good.”)

But we did eventually hit the landing site at a little before 4 p.m. in super-windy weather, but not the snow we had yesterday. A colony of Gentoo penguins—thousands of them—were up on the hills overlooking our race.

It was another punishing course. A 2-kilometer loop on a sloped hillside. So about half was uphill and half was downhill. To add distance they built in star-tipped points, so at times it felt like we were going in and out all day. They did that because there were blizzard conditions in the area and they wanted us to be able to get back to the Zodiacs quickly if need be. The course was also marked with the kind of sticks you see at ski areas, in addition to the normal course-marking material. When we started, at about 4 p.m., they didn’t tell us how long we’d be running—just to be “prepared to run until 10 p.m.” (We came close, finishing at 9:30 p.m.)

I started off in third place. Those first couple laps around are just punishment, plunging steps deep into soft snow, made worse by the fact that the German runner who led at the start is so light (maybe 120 pounds) that he doesn’t seem to punch through the snow like I (and all the other runners) do. Honestly, sometimes at the start I see him up ahead and it’s like Jesus walking on (snow) water. 

Over time I caught up to the Russian and passed him, then by about halfway I got the German too. I think I’m now up by 2 kilometers on the German, and 3 or 4 on the Russian and the Japanese runners as well. 

I’m tired. We didn’t get back until after 10 p.m. last night, ate dinner at 10:45 p.m., and to bed by about midnight. We look likely to have another afternoon run today, but we don’t know. Things change quickly. And we know eventually we’ll have to get to a morning start in order to chalk up some more mileage, which means we may have another late night followed by an early morning start. That would be … well, I just don’t want to do that.

The penguins and the scenery are the most amazing things my eyes have ever encountered, but I also have to put my head down on the trail 99 percent of the time—which is hard, but necessary so I don’t twist an ankle.