Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

March 2, 2009

A Good Run Spoiled

A Long Island writer takes a trip to the bottom of the world. To run a marathon.

Michael Myser

Marathons are everywhere. And hundreds of thousands of marathoners each year travel to run their 26.2 miles. Completing a marathon far from home has become a common journey. But it's one that few decide to finish on the world's most isolated continent.

Writer John Hanc (rhymes with Lance), however, decided his 50th birthday in 2005 would be an appropriate occasion to run and write about this "last marathon," the Antarctica Marathon. His story, told in The Coolest Race on Earth: Mud, Madmen, Glaciers, and Grannies at the Antarctica Marathon, is part travelogue, part runner's diary, and part history lesson in one package.

John Hanc. Photo by Dan Goodrich.
"There was mud, lots of mud. We ran through these frigid ice-water streams, and then ran up the side of a steep, slushy hill of a glacier."

John Hanc. Photo by Dan Goodrich.

In his book, Hanc, who lives in Farmingdale, New York, takes readers along with his fellow runners for what is essentially a scenic vacation culminating in a very miserable jog. His travels start in Argentina, where he sets sail across the "schizophrenic" Drake Passage on converted Russian Navy boats that now serve as cruise ships. Two days later the runners arrive on King George Island, dotted by international research stations and overly aggressive skua seabirds.

Throughout the book, Hanc tells about the original explorers and adventurers who found, hiked, and got lost in Antarctica, and who make today's adventure runners look quaint by comparison. The 2005 race, ultimately, was a slow slog with a cast of wacky characters through mud, muck, and ice, up and down a slushy glacier.

While the finishing times were nothing to write home about, the bizarre race provided more than enough fodder for Hanc's book. Before you read, a warning: the book coaxed this reporter to train for the decidedly less adventurous New Jersey Half Marathon. Gelf Magazine spoke with Hanc about his trip, his book, and why anyone would think running a race in Antarctica is a good idea. The following interview was edited for length and clarity. You can hear Hanc and other sportswriters read from and talk about their work at Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Thursday, March 5, in New York's Lower East Side.

Gelf Magazine: I know it's not really possible to boil it down into a simple answer—that's presumably why you wrote a book—but why run this marathon?

John Hanc: What kind of drives the book is why I, or why anyone, would run this race. I'd been a runner for a long time and a writer for a long time, and like most writers I feel like I can recognize a good story when I hear one. About 10 years ago a very good story presented itself when a guy named Fred Lipsky called me about running a marathon in Antarctica. I said, "Oh really!?!" and did some research and reporting on it, and we did a big cover story for Newsday.
I remember thinking as I wrote that story, "What a cool adventure." It stayed with me and stayed with me and I just decided that I really wanted to do this. And the peg that galvanized the whole idea was, I was turning 50 in January 2005, so that's a really good time to do something unusual. [The Antarctica Marathon was the following month.]
Instead of going to Vegas, instead of having an affair or buying a sports car and driving around the country like a knucklehead, I'll go to Antarctica and write about it.

Gelf Magazine: We come across this sentiment a lot in your book, but what makes someone think, "Oh, that would be a great place to run!"? In other words, is there a certain "type" of person who does a race like this?

John Hanc: There is a profile, yes. But there are many different types, as well. I spoke with a professor of outdoor studies from the University of Idaho for the book who's a big believer in generational analysis, and he feels like it's a lot of people from the Baby Boom generation and Generation X people who do these things. Baby boomers tend to want to be a little more adventurous: They can be risk takers and do things outside the bounds of regular society.
I also found collectors. Some people collect butterflies or stamps. Others collect marathons in unusual places, so that's a big motivation. Others really just like to do races where there are no roads and no cities and no people.
And you know, it's just a cool, exciting adventure in a place not many people get to go to.

Gelf Magazine: At what point did you decide you wanted to write a book about this race and not just do the race?

John Hanc: As a writer, I was thinking right away there must be some cool stuff and some crazy characters to write about here. But a lot of the publishers I went to thought it would have been a whole lot better if I'd been killed during the race, or at least if I'd come fairly close to perishing. That would have been a much more dramatic story.
But I'm not someone who's going to be hanging from one fingernail off the top of Mount Everest. I knew this would be a tough thing, but I never really had any fear my life would be in danger.
Out of the trip, rather, I got five or six interesting stories, and despite the fact that I didn't get killed, I thought there was a book here. There are also some interesting issues to explore around this whole idea: Why do we have a marathon in Antarctica? What are the motivations? What does it say about running? About our society? In answering those questions, I hopefully provided some interesting and sometimes humorous answers.

Gelf Magazine: What were the conditions like for the marathon when you ran it?

John Hanc: The conditions were horrible, but they weren't the conditions you might assume when you think Antarctica. Certainly, it wasn't sub-zero weather.
The thing that startles everybody is that, to be honest with you, on the day we ran, it was colder in New York than it was in Antarctica—whether because of global warming, or the Antarctic summer, or some combination, or luck.
That said, the conditions were awful for running. There was mud, lots of mud. We ran through these frigid ice-water streams, and then ran up the side of a steep, slushy hill of a glacier. Then we came off the glacier and we were running on fields of loose rock.

Gelf Magazine: What do you wear for a marathon in Antarctica? Did you overdress because it was so warm?

John Hanc: Many people do overdress for this marathon, but this time a couple of guys even wore shorts. I wasn't that brave: I wore two layers, gloves, and an ear band. What's more important was what you wear on your feet. I wore a pair of trail shoes, which I think was pretty smart. They didn't make my life much less miserable, but they probably gave me a little bit better traction than if I'd worn my regular running shoes.

Gelf Magazine: What's your personal best? What was your Antarctic time?

John Hanc: OK, so you really want to embarrass me. My personal best is 3:04, and I'd like to go on record by saying I ran a 3:07 just a couple months ago at the Dublin Marathon. I was really happy with that. Antarctica was more like a 4:42. It was a lot slower. A lot slower. That said, everybody runs a lot slower, but I suspect I was even more slow because I was just miserable. I'm a guy from Long Island. I whine when I go on a training run and there's a little puddle of water. I used up a lot of energy just whining and thinking about this race.

Gelf Magazine: Looking back on it, was that disappointing to you?

John Hanc: No, not really. You don't go to Antarctica to run a very fast time.
I had run a pretty good time in the Philadelphia Marathon a few months before the Antarctica Marathon, so I was feeling pretty good. Ideally, I'd liked to have finished in the Top Ten, but for the book and for the experience, it was almost more humorous that it went so poorly. And the value, excitement, and adventure of Antarctica far outweighs any times.

Gelf Magazine: The Antarctica Marathon occasionally gets crazy fast times, but will it ever be a competitive race?

John Hanc: Another one of the problems besides weather is, because of the conditions, they have to alter the course a little bit. One year it was long, another it was short. The guy who won it in 2005, Darryn Zawitz, is a guy who could come into your town and win the local marathon. He's a good runner. But most of the people who come to do this are looking for the experience, not for performance.
So, no, I don't see it becoming a competitive race. And I don't know that it would be a good thing. There are plenty of places and great marathons where you can run competitively, but it's nice to have a few where you don't have to worry about that. Just being in Antarctica and getting down there and being able to run 26.2 miles is really the emphasis for most people.

Gelf Magazine: What's the environmental impact of marathoners going to Antarctica? Do you do anything to mitigate that?

John Hanc: Oh yes! There were strict controls on what we could and couldn't do (just like for all tourists down there). We couldn't leave anything—not a Powerbar wrapper nor a Gatorade bottle. We had to stay on a certain route (part of it was the existing trails that link the scientific bases on the island). We had to bring back everything we took. And as with every excursion during the trip, our shoes had to be disinfected, before we set foot on Antarctic soil. And as for my shoes, after the marathon, well—they were so muddy they could never be worn again anyway!

Gelf Magazine: You also talk about the partying '70s running boom, when runners were putting down times under three hours and putting down lots of beer and pot, versus the serious marathon business today, when you're considered good if you can break four hours. What changed? Is it simply the marathon going mainstream?

John Hanc: I think that's a large part of it. And by the way, I think it's a much healthier scene today now than it was, in many ways. I have tremendous respect for those early, great runners, but I think it's a more democratic sport now. I think a lot of the runners who have entered the sport in the last 10 years—particularly the influx of women—are running to raise money for a good cause or as part of an overall health and fitness program. I think it's good to see people of all shapes and sizes running the marathon, as long as they approach it with respect, and train intelligently. There literally are just more people doing it for many different kinds of reasons now.

Gelf Magazine: On which side of this divide do you like to think of yourself?

John Hanc: I kind of log-roll in the middle. I train with a highly competitive group out here on Long Island; most are younger and faster than me and many are triathletes, too. So I kind of get sucked into that competition—you heard how proud I was and happy to tell you I ran that 3:07!
In some ways, I identify with the broader movement, as well. I never had any illusions that I would win any races, and really just started running to get in shape. The marathon was really just a training goal for me. It became a bigger and more important thing for me as time went on and I got induced into getting better and faster.

Gelf Magazine: Obviously, you describe the history of the Antarctica Marathon, and a little bit about the history of the marathon in general, but what made you decide to delve into the history of Antarctic exploration?

John Hanc: You know, sometimes just writing about running can get a little dull for both the reader and the writer. I think the exploration history is as fascinating, if not more, than the history of Antarctic marathoning. I wanted to know a little bit more about the place we were, and I stumbled upon these stories. What I found out about this early part of Antarctic exploration was really fascinating and hadn't been widely told.
Anybody's who's heard anything about this part of the world certainly knows Shackleton and Amundsen and this heroic era of Antarctic exploration. But I'd defy you to find anybody who's heard of William Smith or Edward Bransfield. They're obscure figures, but it's really interesting how they discovered Antarctica and the Peninsula where we were. And I think these guys have been given short shrift.

Antarctica Marathon

Antarctica Marathon. Photo by Jim Boka.

Gelf Magazine: Be honest, which did you like more: the trip and tourist thing getting to and from Antarctica, or the race itself?

John Hanc: Obviously, you always feel best about the marathon when you've crossed the finish line. During the race, you're usually in pain. You're suffering. I look back on the marathon and I'm proud I did it, but my favorite part was being on the ship, and particularly in the middle of Drake Passage surrounded by water. I'm in the middle of the ocean and I don't see land or anything for two days! To me, that was the most exciting and profound experience. Plus, I didn't get seasick.

Gelf Magazine: What's next on your marathon agenda?

John Hanc: Dublin was my 25th marathon. I was thinking that now would be a good time to do something different, but again showing you the peer pressure of the training group, they're all doing Boston. So I'm doing the Boston Marathon in April.
I don't really want to go back to Antarctica. There are a lot of other places I'd like to go. I'd like to do Big Sur, London, maybe a marathon in China or Russia. The marathon is a vehicle for travel for me. I want to do runs in places that are interesting to go.
And also preferably places that have hotels.

Related in Gelf

• Varsity Letters guest Liz Robbins spoke to Gelf about her chronicle of a more-temperate race, the New York City Marathon.

Michael Myser

Michael Myser is a freelance writer in Morristown, New Jersey. His writing can be found at

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Article by Michael Myser

Michael Myser is a freelance writer in Morristown, New Jersey. His writing can be found at

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