A Marathon and a Research Vessel

In 2009, I ran the Boston Marathon. When I finished, I swore I would never run another; as proud as I was to have gone the distance, I knew I was just not cut out to be running for that long. If I wanted to run distance races, I’d stick to half-marathons and 10 milers. Those were distances I found challenging but manageable. But when I found out that McMurdo held a marathon every year, I started to reconsider…

Unfortunately, I just couldn’t find it in me to train for a marathon from scratch – or almost from scratch, since Sadie and I were putting in 5 miles on a good day before I left – while also trying to accommodate a volume of work that was constantly changing. By the time our staff numbers stabilised with the addition of Liz and Rebekah, it was too close to the marathon to even consider running it without doing myself serious harm, even though I now had the time to train. So I realized that I would have to sit this one out, at least this year. The day before the marathon was scheduled to take place was when the last big snowstorm hit back in January, so it was postponed until this morning.

While I had to work during the race because it was a Sunday, I did have a little chat with Alex, the Midrat prep cook, on Saturday night. She’s been training for it since she got here, doing the bulk of her running on the treadmill. While this idea nauseates me since I am rather treadmill-averse, in talking to her we both realized that it wouldn’t have been hard to do some of the longer runs on the road going to and from the runway, since that was the type of terrain the race would be on anyway. This would also enable me to avoid the rocky terrain around Town, since I am not known for my natural grace and have been known to make “spontaneous skin donations” when running on trails. In terms of equipment, I had actually come better prepared than I thought given how warm it gets during December and January, when I’d be doing my longer runs. A pair of tights and a long-sleeved tech fabric top and perhaps a vest would do fine, as long as my head and hands were covered – this means I should get used to running in a hat and mittens, something I’m not currently used to doing. Also, I would have to become accustomed to using a pee bottle because there’s no way I could ensure I was hydrated AND hold it for as long as it takes me to run a marathon (which is a very very long time, I’m a slow runner). So all this to say that now I have some idea of what to expect in terms of training conditions, I think I could do it next year.

The marathon itself is very well organized, with the route clearly marked, bib numbers issued, race hat (instead of a shirt) pickup, and even a massage therapist onsite to help warm up your muscles.



Some people wear costumes, some people come with skis (you’re allowed to ski the course), and some people are there to seriously run.





Everyone gets loaded onto Ivan the Terra Bus and heads out to the starting line together, where the full marathoners get their start. If you opt to run the half, you’re then taken to the turnaround point.




For me personally, I worry that the marathon is an out-and-back course, and that the scenery doesn’t vary all that much. Additionally, there’s not the kind of support one might expect after having run Boston – it’s a pretty lonely, isolated road.



But I’m sure that makes you appreciate the volunteers that DO come out even more – they’re the ones timing you (chip timers seem a bit ridiculous for this kind of thing), manning the water stations, aid stations and bathroom stations.




And with such a small field, everyone gets a chance to “break the tape” when they cross the finish line!



Alex, our galley rockstar who was the first woman to finish and came second overall!

Alex, our galley rockstar who was the first woman to finish and came second overall!



So yeah, next year. I hope.

This evening, after work, I had signed up for a tour of the Nathaniel B Palmer research vessel which was now docked at our Ice Pier – the first of the three expected vessels to come through (the tanker and the cargo vessel being the next two). The Palmer is a 94 meter Research Vessel Ice Breaker (RVIB), that carries up to 37 scientists, a crew of 22, can accommodate a helicopter, and can carry out research missions lasting up to 75 days thanks to its ice-breaking capability. As a “floating lab”, it is ideally positioned to undertake global change studies that focus on biological, oceanographic, geological, and geophysical components. Typically in a year, it will do 7-9 missions but sometimes as many as 13.





Living quarters consist of a small room with two bunks, a head and a shower. Each room comes with a TV/VCR, stereo, telephone, and LAN jack for connection to the ship-wide network. Each level has laundry facilities as well. There’s also a lounge with movies and a small lending library in the conference room.

IMG_4207 IMG_4219 IMG_4206

I have to say, I found the network of stairs and hallways and hatches super confusing but, then again, I’ve never been on a cruise so I’m sure people who are familiar with these types of ships are used to it.

We didn’t see the workout room but apparently they have their own little “gerbil gym” and sauna. And of course they have a lovely little mess hall – open 24 hours a day, seven days a week although hot meals have specific times. This was perhaps the hardest part of the tour for most of us McMurdo-ans, as the ship had already received their Freshies for their current mission and had apples and bananas on display…while everyone from the station is heading into our second month of no Freshies.




And then we got taken through the extensive lab facilities, where the research is conducted. Past projects include using molecular data to test connectivity and the circumpolar paradigm for Antarctic marine invertebrates, dynamics and transport of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current in Drake Passage, and the studying the impact of mesoscale processes on iron supply and phytoplankton dynamics in the Ross Sea.






At the end of the tour, our guide took us up to the bridge to stand at the controls and sit in the captain’s chair if we wished.





All in all, it was interesting to learn about yet another facet of the United States Antarctic Program as well as finally set foot on the Ice Pier, the gradual construction of which I’ve watched all summer!


The Ice Pier is a pretty cool piece of engineering – its main purpose is to provide a stable platform for our trucks to receive cargo or fuel from the vessels or offload waste and goods for the vessels to take off the continent. Prior to the creation of the Ice Pier, ships had to moor along seasonal pack ice some distance from station and cargo was offloaded onto large sleds that were then pulled by tractors over the seasonal ice – it was quite a dangerous operation. Our tanker would have to dock about 10 miles away and we would run fuel lines out to it to pump the fuel to shore. In 1972, they tried to create a steel dock, but it was destroyed by a storm. So engineers constructed a block of ice, covered it with matting and straw, and used it as a fender for the tanker that year. It worked so well, they decided to try constructing it closer to the station, for ease of transport.

Over time, construction has become more complex – starting during the winter, the 244 meter by 90 meter pier is marked off on the seasonal pack ice in Winter Quarters Bay. A snow berm of several feet is created along this perimeter and the pack ice is flooded with sea water up to a depth of 10 cm. This seawater freezes solid in about 24 hours and the whole process is repeated until a thickness of about 1.5 meters is reached. Then a mat of 25mm thick steel cable is secured to 50mm thick steel pipes and embedded into the ice pier and then the filling and freezing occurs again until the pier is about 6.7 meters thick. Utility poles are drilled into the ice to provide electrical and telephone service to the pier as well as secure the pier to the shore via steel cables. Finally, a 15-20cm layer of volcanic gravel is layered over the top to provide a nonslip surface and insulate the ice from sunshine (and thus prevent melting). Such a construction yields a pier that will last up to five years (barring any freak storms, unseasonably warm temperatures or collisions with vessels).

Prior to blasting it free of the shore so that it floats properly.

Prior to blasting it free of the shore so that it floats properly.

The blast.

The blast.

I also find it interesting that when our divers go into Winter Quarters Bay to do checks on the pier underwater, they have to use a closed loop system, complete with heavy rubber suit and helmet because the water is so polluted from years of the station dumping waste and garbage into the harbor – this stopped ages ago, obviously, and now all our waste is hauled off the continent but the damage has been done: it is regarded by some to be one of the most polluted bodies of water in the world. Fortunately current movement and the existence of a submarine ridge along the mouth of the bay keep the pollution remarkably contained but it certainly explains why the penguins and seals stay right around Hut Point rather than coming into the bay.


3 responses to “A Marathon and a Research Vessel

  1. “But I’m sure that makes you appreciate the volunteers that DO come out even more – they’re the ones timing you (chip timers seem a bit ridiculous for this kind of thing), manning the water stations, aid stations and bathroom stations.”

    Don’t forget about the (only) photographer out there, who stood out in the cold for hours just to get those pictures! (p.s. it was me)

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