Baikal Ice Marathon 2017
42k in Siberian ice desert - Marathon at -20 degrees!
Valid question - why would one end up in the ice desert in the middle of nowhere to run a marathon? Availability is the simplest answer. There are not many ice marathons available and my desired event - the south pole marathon - exceeds my budget, as the pure sign up fee is around 12.000$. It took me a fair amount of research (I even signed up for an ice skating marathon in Finland, accidentally) to learn about this small race in Russia. Also, the youtube content about this race looked quite cool.
I hop onto the plane to Irkutsk a day before the official race weekend starts in order to get used to the time zone, as I was staying in Canada before. I did not even have leave the plane as the Russian „kindness“ hits me - we are being filmed while leaving the plane and passport control takes forever (Not even mentioning the visa process months earlier which took huge efforts, time and was quite costly).
I did not really plan much ahead, hence when leaving the airport, I am looking for a bus to go downtown. A small mini van with a grumpy looking driver picks me up, obviously he does not understand a word, nor can he tell me the direction he is heading into. As there is no major alternative, I decide to give it a shot and do my best to navigate with google maps (no internet connection, of course) in order to get to my place. A couple of streets later, I jump off and make it to the hostel - relieved and tired after thirty hours of travels with two stopovers somewhere in China.
My body is completely confused - I was traveling too fast from country to country, switching time zones at an insane pace: 1,5 days in China, two days in Canada, three days in Las Vegas, another three days in Canada, just to mention some. I spend the whole afternoon being "too tired to sleep“ and meet a girl from Couchsurfing to explore the area a little bit.
Next day: Official race meet-up, it is the first time I ever booked a race organizer and look forward to the upcoming weekend since everything should be perfectly preorganised. How wrong I was (total cost around 500$ for signup, two hotel nights and food). I show up at the designated time and place and nobody is around. It takes several hours until I manage to be picked up as my phone does not operate in Russia. Later, we are dropped of at a stunning ski resort at the south side of lake Baikal and I meet my roomie, another girl from L.A. who is running the half marathon.
Dinner is a fixed menu and looks beyond disgusting - I am scared to confuse my body more than needed and stick to plain pasta without sauce or meat. Also, I get sent back to my room to grab some cents for water, which was not included in my all-inclusive travel package. At the race briefing, we get some more information about this years conditions and advice for the race - things really start to get exciting.
The breakfast options are amazing! I get dressed but I am super restless as I cannot wait to start off. My equipment is well planned (I use waterproof running shoes, two layers of Merino socks, three layers of pants: Merino base layer, water and wind proof gore tex and a wool short on top, several jackets, gloves, snow goggles and buffs to cover my head).
We are picked off by some more mini busses to get to the race site: Lake Baikal. In front of the lake, they built a huge rest and food tent which is heated - the last minutes before starting off! While waiting, I make friends with some dutch runners. We are very amazed by all the different kinds of people that showed up: super sparkling Asians with the latest fancy technical gear, looking like they are about to start off to a mars expedition. Old running bears, brining the bare minimum of running gear. And well, there is me: pink wings, pink tutu and many layers of things I found for sale on amazon the weeks before.
The weather is perfect - the sun is shining, everything is snowy and sparkly and we have about minus 15 degrees, which is a lot more than I expected (Some Canadians out there will consider this as warm, I guess). Start time - the group takes off. Only about 120 runners signed up and qualified for that race, hence it gets a bit lonely after the first kilometers.
The route leads straight across lake Baikal without any distractions. It is just you and ice. Ice and you. The path is cleared from snow and pretty easy to spot, also getting lost in these conditions would be very risky. I start running.
I find my rhythm pretty quick and feel hot straight from the beginning. I put off the snow goggles and the sweat around my lashes freezes immediately. Besides, I try to open up my jackets just a little and put of my gloves which is a horrible idea. It turns out that breathing even gets a lot harder like that. After one hour, I really experience troubles to have nice and deep breaths. It does not work, the air is too cold. I am gasping and suffering, kicking my ass from aid station to aid station. My mind is going crazy - I see many colors and patterns popping up in the snow. Being out there for on my own already a couple of hours, the mental game is very tough. From time to time, a hovercraft passes by to check up on me.
After more than five hours, I drag myself across the finish line. No music, no medal. Just an old lady assigning me to a shuttle bus and hotel - what a sad finish line!
At night, there is a „Gala dinner“ where certificates are handed out while having terrible Russian food and large amounts of vodka. I have to leave straight afterwards to catch my plane to Beijing, but again, the shuttle does not work as it was supposed to be. Irkutsk airport is one of the saddest places I have ever seen, but I try to make the best of it by getting tipsy with some Chinese runners at the Irish pub. Off to Nepal for a new summit!
Organizational wise, this was pure horror to me (Also, because I am a very organized German potato usually). But I payed for a simple two day trip and did not feel taken cared of very well. The food was beyond bad (barely eatable) and messing up airport shuttles in BOTH directions is a real achievement.
But a more serious topic: There was a casualty. And that makes me really mad - I am aware it is the nature of a marathon to be extraordinary tough for our bodies and running it in such extreme conditions is a high risk for ones physical wellbeing. BUT.
This person would have had a chance if there would have been the appropriate amount of first aid and emergency people around. Apparently, check-ups were not sufficient and aid station volunteers not very passionate about their job (Just one person with a small desk, offering tee and cookies. Sometimes they did not even look up from their phones when passing by)
Hence, this was my last time running Baikal Ice Marathon. The experience was simply insane, I experienced new levels of self discipline and strength and I met the most wonderful people. But I expect a different level of security when racing in such extreme conditions and to me, still being responsible and thoughtful especially when having these hobbies is key.