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The Last Desert, Stage 3

Matt Cavanaugh

Stage 3 went well—despite another 1.1-km loop course on a tiny speck of land in the Orne Islands and some wicked wind, I held and expanded my lead a bit. I’m still leading the race.

We’ve settled into a rhythm at this point. Breakfast 7 or 7:30 a.m. 11 a.m. race brief with departure time only, no weather information provided (“be prepared for anything”) and no distance information (“be prepared for anything”). 2:30 p.m. load-up … get held up by weather, delayed departure … race start 4 p.m. Run until 9:30 p.m. Dinner 10:30 p.m. 

And, of course, the race course was about the same yesterday. A 1.1-km loop with star-pointed ins and outs to add some distance. With nearly 50 runners, from up above we must look like a giant game of human Pac-Man, with the faster runners passing and “gobbling up” the slower ones.

That’s the toughest part about the race for me. What happens over time is that the route gets packed in, but it’s only the width of a single person. So every step you make out to the left or right is somewhat dangerous, as you don’t know if you’ll punch through down to your knee or hit a solid patch. It costs energy, not to mention that it’s a little risky on the ankles. I do that hundreds and hundreds of times a day.

The other thing is the rules on Antarctica do not permit solid food or wrappers of any kind, no matter what—it’s an instant race penalty/disqualification. But you can put thick, calorie-dense drink mix into your water bottles in order to get some calories during the day. 

That in and of itself is another key aspect to the race that makes it a little like NASCAR—the decision as to when to take a pit stop. When to refuel, when to use the race’s single toilet (no joke, just one, behind a makeshift snow wall). You watch your competitors as best you can to see when they pull over and balance that against your own needs. 

The wind was so strong yesterday that I wore an extra shell and at the end of the day had to drop my sunglasses for about the last hour because they were fogging up and I couldn’t see the choppy snow trail ahead. The race doctors have briefed and reminded us several times about the importance of eye protection against snow-blindness, so I waited as long as I could before I pulled off the glasses. At some point the risk of a rolled ankle was worse for me than the threat to my eyesight. 

Other than us, the island was covered by thousands of penguins. And the surrounding icebergs, water, and mountains were something even CGI-magic couldn’t cook up. But I spent the day only looking at my next step, which is more than a little frustrating. I’m looking forward to getting this thing finished so I can look at all the pretty things down here.