06 April 2012, 7am
Passport in one hand and holdall in the other, I approached the immigration desk at Sydney Airport. What countries had I visited in the past six days?, the official asked. “Antarctica, South Africa, Brazil, USA, Great Britain and China,” I answered.
To fill the stunned silence I explained that I was running the marathon distance on all seven continents, in under five days. “Well, best of luck” came the reply.
Three years before I had run seven marathons on seven continents in 5 days 10 hours 8 minutes. This time I was trying to do it in less than five days. Yet it only came into my head in mid-January when I planned to travel to a Russian research base called Novolazarevskaya (Novo) in Antarctica to investigate possibilities for a future Antarctic Triathlon. I thought I could do Marathons on the seven continents by taking the long way home, back to Galway in Ireland.
After extensive Internet searching on possible permutations of the journey, I figured it would take about 118–120 hours from the start of the first marathon in Antarctica to the finish of the seventh and final marathon in Sydney. In between, I would have to fly from Antarctica to Cape Town (Africa) to Sao Paulo (South America) to Orlando (North America) to London (Europe) to Hong Kong (Asia) and on to Sydney (Australia).
Just the flying required 43,500km to be covered in 56 hours. At least another 10 hours would be ‘wasted’ between check-in and take-off and 18 hours would be needed to disembark from planes, receive customs clearance and travel to and from race locations.
That left 34–36 hours for running the seven marathons and a very small cushion for flight delays and mishaps. There was no margin for error.
I would travel on my own in economy with no medical back-up or supplies. It would be one-way tickets for fixed departure times, lugging a bag of gear, and relying on help from friends and strangers. As organiser of the North Pole and Antarctic Ice Marathons, I love logistical and physical challenges and this was both. It was also a golden opportunity to raise awareness and funds for the humanitarian charity GOAL and its work in the Horn of Africa.
The starting gun in Antarctica would have to be fired in anticipation of the Russian IL-76 cargo plane’s departure from Novo for Cape Town, the marathon to be run there, and the timing of the onward flight to the third marathon venue in Sao Paulo. Antarctica is notorious for delays, so I could be scuppered at the outset.
Before starting I had to make sure I had somewhere to run in each location, make sure that it was the right distance and that someone could verify that it was.
Steven Seaton, former Editor of Runner’s World UK emailed marathon organisers and AIMS measurers at several of the destination cities for help. Within days, the necessary principals in Cape Town, Sao Paulo, London, and Sydney were on board through James Evans (President, Athletics South Africa), Rodolfo Eichler (AIMS measurer, Brazil), Steven Seaton (London) and Dave Cundy (AIMS measurer, Sydney). Antarctica would be measured and recorded via GPS and my run witnessed by people at Camp. Arrangements in Orlando and Hong Kong were being finalised with Tom Ward (AIMS measurer and Disney Marathon) and Fung Wang Tak (AIMS measurer and Hong Kong Marathon technical director). They generously agreed to give their time, expertise and resources to assist the project.
Fearghal Murphy, back home in Galway, would maintain the event website www.worldmarathonchallenge.com and related Facebook and Twitter updates, and also liaise with the marathon organisers.
I flew into Antarctica on 30 January at 23:30 South African time (there are no time zones in Antarctica). Novo, a few tents and wooden huts with an adjoining ice airstrip, is 75km from the northern coast of Antarctica in an area called Dronning Maud Land. The sun never sets at this time of year. Flights from Africa bring personnel and equipment to the base. They also deliver adventurers, explorers and tourists intent on climbing mountains in the region or trekking to the South Pole – or running Marathons.
After spending a day at base with Norwegian and Finnish explorers I started to run at 20:53 Sydney time, almost two hours later than intended due to a projected delay on the outgoing flight, which was due out 5.5 hours later. In wind chill temperatures of –10C and the snow-covered runway as a course, I expected to finish within 5 hours while still conserving energy for the rigours ahead. Running on ice is much slower and I counted on taking an hour more than for the equivalent effort on road.
The weather was perfect and underfoot conditions the only impediment, but an hour into the run the flight was brought forward so that I had to run quicker than 4:30 minutes. Taking no food and very little water, but with occasional encouragement from adventurers coming out of their tents, I ran 4:21:11 and immediately boarded the waiting plane for Cape Town. The first major hurdle was over and I felt confident of the onward flight schedule — there was just the matter of running the marathons in between.
James Evans, the Cape Town Marathon organiser and President of Athletics South Africa, met me on arrival in Cape Town with a group of three or four support runners to run the official route of the Cape Town Marathon, beginning at midnight local time. It felt almost dreamlike as just eight hours after finishing the Antarctic Marathon in –10C, I was standing at the start line of my African leg in a major city centre at midnight.
Temperatures reached only +20C, but there were some strong winds. Chatting with the support runners was a great help, and after finishing in 4:23:51 I had time for a shower en route the airport for my 07.00 flight to Sao Paulo. I travelled via Johannesburg and got my first sleep since starting: about one hour.
Rodolfo Eichler and his wife Suzana Gnaccarini had secured authorisation from the Brazilian Defence and Air Force Department to run the marathon at the Brazilian Air Base adjoining the international airport. I ran 21+ laps of a 2km circuit on the base. The route was manned by Air Force personnel; officials from the Sao Paulo International Marathon provided timing facilities and refreshments; Valmir Numes, former World 100km Champion, ran 30km with me; and the commander of the base, Cel Frigini, ran with me for 12km. In my third marathon within two days the temperature rose to 26C and dropped as darkness descended.
After finishing the run in 4:19:30, the Air Force arranged a shower and food before going to the airport for the flight to Orlando. It had been a short stay in Brazil but an amazing experience. I left with a very positive feeling for the country.
I thought I would sleep on the flight but it is impossible to stretch out in economy and short ‘cat naps’ served to re-energise me enough to stay awake for a few more hours, but not sufficiently to meet major endurance challenges. Tom Ward met me with Sarah Ames, who has run both North Pole Marathon and Antarctic Ice Marathons and travelled from Chicago to lend her support.
Tom had measured a 5km circuit at Winter Park, about 18km north of the airport, and provided a timing clock and support through his colleagues at Track Shack running store.
Although starting off relaxed, and despite mild temperatures for Orlando, the accumulating fatigue began to hit home.
North America was the first continent on which I threw up, starting a trend that continued to the end. I had trouble keeping fluids down and after several stops my marathon time was 4:44:27. I needed to sleep or just lie down and luckily I managed to commandeer a few middle row seats on my nine-hour flight to London, en route to my fifth marathon.
On arrival, and after grabbing a few hours’ sleep, Steven Seaton told me that severe weather was forecast and airports might be closing that night, but I might get out just in time.
In temperatures of –6C, I ran a measured circuit of Clapham Common eight times. My sisters and niece paid a surprise visit from Ireland and Steven’s wife, Annabel, and sons provided support. Mike King, a friend and sports photographer from London, was also on hand to take some photos. Despite feeling a lot better than in Orlando, it was difficult to keep fluid and food down and I got sick a few times.
It was becoming clear that running marathons was only one aspect of this challenge: sleep deprivation, inadequate diet, extreme temperature fluctuations, changing running conditions, and flight fatigue were all taking their toll.
I completed in 4:32:45 for a cumulative time for the first five marathons of 23 hours. After showering at Steven’s house and a drive to Heathrow, I was on the plane to Hong Kong at 18:05, just over 10 hours after arriving in London. Flights were indeed cancelled by the following morning due to the adverse weather. I was lucky.
I spent the flight to Hong Kong feeling ill. I couldn’t eat or sleep and was too weary to even to watch the in-flight movies. I just stared blankly at a screen for 12 hours.
All I wanted to do when I got off the plane was to lie down and close my eyes but I had to stay awake and clear customs … and then run a marathon.
Chu Wing Yat and Yennie Ho, very friendly and helpful, took me to the marathon start at nearby Tung Chung. Despite the Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon having taken place earlier the same day, technical director Fung Wang Tak had not only arranged a measured 2km circuit but showed up in person to greet me at the start.
The manned aid station became a psychological focal point to reach on each lap. I took some small quantities of water and chocolate but my stomach inevitably began a retching process. Once or twice I felt myself losing balance and feared a collapse but eventually finished in 5:03:05.
Following a shower and change I was on my way again. As the plane took off, I knew that the stats were now on my side. I reached Sydney at 12:15 and had 8.5 hours to make my self-imposed deadline.
After the nonplussed border official waved me through, I met up with Dave Cundy and Fran Seton. They took me to Botany Bay where Dave had measured a 14km out-back course by the seafront. He and Fran cycled alongside me with their friend Bruce Abrahams. There were strong winds of about 40km/hour with overcast skies. I didn’t feel good; a drink of water came back up immediately.
This final marathon proved more difficult than I thought possible. I had to concentrate on the simple act of putting one foot in the front of the other. Talk turned to the peculiar palliative properties of beer, and Fran pedalled off to the bottle shop. To my amazement, despite everything else being rejected, my abused body gratefully accepted a bottle of Heineken. I finished at 18:56, this final marathon taking 5:21:40, and immediately celebrated with another beer.
I’d done it, with a time 117 minutes less than five days, but as much by luck as judgment: had I started a day later, I would have been snowbound in London. The marathons felt like the end of lengthy ultramarathons, but the major revelation was how supportive the running and broader community can be across the world. Mostly I had just sent an email to a marathon organiser I didn’t know – and that person, along with others, would meet me at the location and give all possible help they could. It made all the difference.