Swim Antarctica!

A considerate friend snapped this picture of me after I’d emerged from the water. Notice I’m still wearing the anti-chafing tape from the marathon.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been testing a neighbor’s theory about me — he thinks I’m crazy. And after this last adventure, I will concede he has a point.

We all need goals, and a major objective in the sport of running is to complete a marathon on all seven continents. But isn’t Antarctica a continent? And is there a marathon there?

Yes, and yes!

There is a Seven Continents Club™ and there are expeditions to the bottom of the earth that include seeing some amazing sights, observing the local wildlife, and running a marathon. Space is limited and the trip is surprisingly popular, so there can be a multiyear wait. Fortunately, there was a late cancellation and I was able to go this February.

If running a marathon in Antarctica sounds crazy, it gets worse. Early in the cruise, one of my new-found friends said “You’re doing the Polar Plunge with us, right?”

The Polar Plunge is putting on a bathing suit and submersing one’s self in Antarctic waters. It sounded like sheer insanity. I demurred.

Nothing formal was announced, leading me to believe the extreme COVID restrictions (we were quarantined in our cabins the first two days and tested every day but one) had caused a change in plans. But then on the second of the three excursion days, during the daily recap, it was announced: “Tomorrow we do the Polar Plunge.” Did I hear cheering?

Waivers were signed (waivers?), plans were made, but much to my relief no one in my circle of friends was mentioning it. I even had to bring it up: “Are you planning to do the Polar Plunge?” I whispered to one friend that night. Well, yes, it was expected, everyone we knew is doing it, if you don’t, you’ll never hear the end of it, etc, etc. Two words: peer pressure. I nodded sympathetically and quickly walked away.

The next morning before breakfast, I was checking the weather outside when I chanced upon a young lady admiring the view. Yes, she had signed up, but was now having second thoughts. We both decided it was an individual matter. Our friends can do what they want, good for them, but we have to decide what’s best for us. That’s what keeps us out of trouble. After all, we’re not sheep, right?

Well, now the only thing I can say is “Baaaaaa.” The questions started at breakfast. “You’re not doing this with us? You’re just going to stand there and watch? You’re going to miss the chance of a lifetime?”

That was a good point, this was a very unique opportunity. The weather clear, the sun was out, maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all. I guess I should at least keep my options open. I sneaked back to my cabin and put on a bathing suit under my pants.

© Cool Antarctica

Our location was Deception Island in the South Shetlands. It was the caldera of an active-but-dormant volcano and the former site of the Hector Whaling Station. As such, the beach was dark sand, completely at variance with the rocky landings we were used to. And the atmosphere was moderate. The ground didn’t feel cold at all. Because of the volcano? Probably, or if it was a mind trick, it was a really good one.

When we arrived, we first took time to explore, noting the derelict remains of the whaling industry and the natural beauty with an overview from the top of a hill.

As I returned to our landing site, I could see what seemed like half the world (actually it was 109 people) lining up on the beach, stripping off the outer layers, and running excitedly into the water. Sigh.

I sought out the crew member in charge, and she handed me the necessary paperwork. The waver was two pages and reminded me of a real estate transaction: “Initial here, initial here, sign here.” All I had time to do was sign (Does ANYBODY read these things?”).

Then I joined my friends on the beach. Someone found a box of small tarpaulins and grabbed one, spreading it out on the sand despite the wind, and the layers came off.

Once ready, I quickly made my way to the water’s edge and walked in. The plan was to walk to waist-deep water, make a quick dive under, then a hurried-but-dignified exit.

To my relief, the water was cold but not seriously uncomfortable. My submersion was not the “takes-my-breath-away-I-think-my heart-stopped” shock I expected; the best description was “bracing.”

When I came up and looked back, I realized I had gone out farther than planned. The beach looked 100 yards away! Of course, it wasn’t, and I was quickly out.

As I approached the shore, I glanced to my right and noticed a fur seal was also exiting the water about ten yards away. My mind was on getting dressed, so I turned back to our cache of clothes. (Later I was told the seal seemed agitated, and the Plunge was suspended for a while. After all, this was his home.)

Once out of the water, the mood around me ranged from satisfaction to euphoria as we looked for the towels. I actually didn’t feel uncomfortably cold. There was no shivering, just “Could I please have a towel?” The towels were large and very absorbent.

When I’d left the ship, a friend had suggested putting an undergarment in my backpack so I wouldn’t have to wear a wet bathing suit under my pants on the way back. That turned out to be problematic. Most of the young ladies around me wore two-piece suits, so it was simply a matter of wrapping a towel around the waist, pulling down, pulling up, and they were changed. I had on a suit that came almost to my knees and was secured with a tight drawstring. Plus my balance isn’t what it used to be anyway, so trying to change while keeping a towel strategically placed wasn’t something I thought I could pull off (pardon the pun).

How cold was it? One young lady brought her dive watch along, but wasn’t in the water long enough to activate it. The certificate we were given lists the temperature as 35.6 degrees F, which makes for wonderful storytelling.

Bottom line: Despite feeling very sheep-like, the experience was not unpleasant and I’m glad I tried it. And one of our group did find a way for self-expression: he didn’t wear a bathing suit!

The Seven Continents Club™ is a trademark of Marathon Tours and Travel (https://www.marathontours.com/)

2 comments on “Swim Antarctica!”

  1. Deborah Reply

    Hello Bob, I’m a friend of a friend Carolyn Gaynor, who would like to run the seven continents. What suggestions you may offer will be greatly appreciated.

  2. Bob Welbaum Reply

    It helps if you’re young! The “Seven Continents Club” is a trademark of Marathon Tours and Travel; you should go to their website and sign up (https://www.marathontours.com/). My understanding is you can make your own travel arrangements, but I’ve always gone through MT&T. The hardest one is Antarctica: there is only one choice with a limited number of spaces and it’s a demanding course. Fortunately, you can do the Seven Continents for either half marathons or marathons.

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