It’s all come down to this. I’m in Punta Arenas, Chile and it has become apparent that the window for breaking Douglas Wilson’s Guinness Record has closed. I was just told that other flights from earlier in the week had been postponed by weather, those flights had finally gone earlier in the day, the last one dropped off at 8:30pm in Antarctica, now the pilots had to fly back to Chile and complete a mandatory rest period of 12 hours before flying again. That means, our earliest possible flight to Antarctica couldn’t possibly leave before 10am, which would then arrive around 12:30pm. In order to beat Wilson, the marathon needed to be complete by 2:30pm. Not even Ryan Hall could do that on his best day… in Boston… let alone Antarctica. So, between asking Steve H if pilots could be bribed to fly early, and plotting the letter I was going to write to Guinness when I got home degrading the amazing challenge Wilson accomplished in 2015 while once again spelling out every reason why running public races with official start times each day is different from running closed 26.2 mile stages whenever you get there… I had to chill myself down and recognize that none of this was ever really under my control and that exactly what was supposed to happen would happen. Guinness has never shown any sign that they intend to judge us by anything but the same bar, and that is a bar that simply cannot be reached by me this year due to logistical issues that impact me but I cannot impact. Time to take stock with a full situational analysis. Refocus. Pray. What will be, will be.
Full Situation Analysis: Dan, Steve P, Lisa, Jagjit, Chau, Julie, Steve H, and I have run 6 Public Marathons or Halfs in 6 Days on 6 Continents, a feat that has only ever been done once before in history- by the 2015 participants of 777Quest group. That group actually made it onto the Antarctic charter flight in plenty of time to beat 7 days but were turned around 20 minutes from landing due to visibility concerns. Here we are, with the Male Guinness window of 162 hrs, 2 mins, 11 secs (from the start in Australia) closing in a few hours and the 7-day (168 hours) cutoff shortly behind… and I’m still on the ground in Chile. However, by all accounts, the weather in Antarctica is great and the skies are clear. If all goes according to plan, I’ll get a few good hours of sleep and a nice breakfast before a smooth flight to Antarctica in plenty of time to run a nice, slow trail marathon and be one of 6 people ever to finish a real public marathon on all 7 continents in under 168 hours. Heck, Dan had been beating me by 2 hours or so everyday anyway- at least this way I don’t have to run my guts out just not to get lapped by the World Record holder!
Action Steps: The only things within my control, that I can do to ensure I maximize any possible opportunities which may arise, are: Make sure my stuff is packed and ready to go in case a miracle call comes in the middle of the night; set the alarm in time to get up, dress, eat breakfast, and get on the shuttle; pray; shut down my mind, and get some sleep.
When the alarms went off at 5am I was tingly tired. You know that feeling you get if you wake up after a couple hours of sleep and your skin feels all prickly and you’re almost light headed? I thought I’d become immune to that feeling because I’d been so easily popping in and out of various lengths of sleep for the whole past week… surprise! I’m still freaking human and it stinks! It took a few minutes for me to clear out the cobwebs and remind myself what was most certainly still at stake. It was hard. I just wanted to turn closed-eyed prayers for strength into an excuse to drift back to sleep. I wanted to set another alarm for a little while later… you know- all that crap you say to convince yourself to sleep in when you know you need to haul your butt out of bed? Well, that was happening in my hotel room in Punta Arenas, Chile on the day I was to run The White Continent Marathon and finish the 7 Continents under 7 Days, unbelievable!
My feet ultimately hit the floor and I began the rote preparations for this marathon:
Wash last night’s lotion off of my feet, dry them well, apply moleskin, slather new lotion on the feet and the moleskin, put on Smartwool compression socks, pull on running tights, and cover those with fitted running sweatpants. Squeeze my swollen, bruised feet into my Altra Lone Peak size 14 trail shoes with some old Asics gaiters. Then layer up the top with a compression half-turtle neck, a fitted thermal layer, the Eternal Endurance Antarctica tech tee, balaclava, and a WVU thermal hat. Since I love to accessorize, I adorn the Lifeproof armband with iPhone, Yurbuds earbuds and Cordman to clip to my inner collar, 2 layers of gloves, race belt with bib and Gu’s, Go Pro with headgear, Garmin Forerunner 920XT (sans HR Monitor since its battery died), sunglasses, and my handheld water bottle with its pocket loaded full of GE, S-Caps, Ibuprofen, and 2 extra Go Pro batteries. Finally, there was my big, hooded down jacket. After a full system check to assure I’d missed nothing of critical importance, I took off the unnecessary outer layers, stacked them neatly on the bed and went downstairs for breakfast.
Breakfast consisted of… everything I could get my hands on as usual! I won’t bore you with the details, just rest assured, I got plenty of calories. Everything was still a go so I went upstairs after breakfast, grabbed my gear, and made my way out to the rental cars with all my stuff. The gear we weren’t wearing had to fit in one large bag and the little backpack. The large bag could weigh no more than 20 kilos. That’s about 44 pounds and needed to include things like: -40 degree sleeping bag, sleeping mat, ski pants, -30 degree boots, dry layers, mittens, toilet paper, first aid supplies, 58,000 pairs of socks, etc. everything I’d need to spend the night in Antarctica with no shower after running a marathon. As it turned out, my big bag with all my (pared down) gear weighed 19.2 kilos and I was barely good to go. We waited in the Punta Arenas airport for what seemed like forever. Then, they started boarding the flight to Antarctica, we all cheered and got in line at the gate. Wrong flight! While our 168-hour window was fading away, a different group of tourists went out and boarded a snazzy jet painted to look like a penguin. We sat back down and stopped cheering. Evidently, we still weren’t the priority and my feeling of being a speck of dust in the wind grew along with a resurgence of my anxiety that we wouldn’t get there in time to go under 7 days. And we waited... And waited. During this time, I met more people of varying backgrounds. A couple of the others who were there to do the White Continent and the Punta Arenas Marathons had secretive jobs I’m not allowed to talk about in public. Others had more normal jobs, including Deborah the Archivist and perennial Ironman from Maryland. She and I began talking Ironman which led into her years living in New Zealand, and a wide array of other topics based in our common ground of Maryland, Ironman, and love of travel. I also talked with a couple of Doctors from Nebraska who like to go on wild marathon adventures, including their first in sub-Saharan Africa which included IV fluids to finish! There was also Roosevelt who was challenged by his brother to run a marathon on all 7 Continents before he died. His brother issued this challenge as he was dying, to his out of shape brother who couldn’t even imagine doing a marathon at that time- what a legacy! Meeting these folks helped to deaden the sound of the ticking away of my 168 hours. Eventually, we got the real instructions to embark and we headed out to the tarmac to board our flight on Antarctic Air by DAP. Just because we were getting on the plane didn’t come close to guaranteeing we would land or beat 168 hours… but it was a good move in the right direction!
There was plenty of nervous energy on that plane and the whole cabin was abuzz with conversations and excitement. We got fed again! Since I was wearing layers of athletic pants I couldn’t even undo a button! Everything was clear as a bell and about 12:30pm we touched down in Antarctica. My first impression of Antarctica: Where’s all the snow? I was aware that most of the Earth’s fresh water is stored in the form of ice in Antarctica, but I could see more brown than white on most of the surroundings from this vantage up high on the landing strip atop the highest hill. Sure, there was snow here and there, but it looked more like a surface mining property in the mountains than what I imagined Antarctica would look like. Of course, there were no trees and no grass, but there were pockets of a green moss near the water that looked like grass from a distance. Looking out across the bay we had landed near, I could see big, blue glaciers in the distance. Looking in any direction, I could see plenty of enclaves of snow on the hills… but mostly, it was all rocks and mud with some human settlements interspersed at intervals. The snow was spitting a bit and I’d say it was about 20 degrees minus a hefty wind chill up there at arrival. We all adorned our heavy coats and braced for a cold 24 hours. The crew unloaded our big bags off the plane and we set to carrying our belongings about 2 miles down to our campsite between the Chilean and Chinese Research Bases.
To get there, we traversed down some rocky “roads” used by trucks to link the bases. First, we passed the Russian base, then their neighbors the Chileans, and finally got to a big white tent that had been setup as our Start/Finish line, warming tent, and place to find food or drink. There, we dumped our heavy loads in piles on the rocks and oriented ourselves to our new digs beside the bay. The crew had just started assembling our 3-man North Face basecamp tents and the temporary “bathrooms” were also still a work in process. These “bathrooms” are porta-potty sized thin-walled tents that give some privacy while you do your business. In Antarctica, you can leave NOTHING behind. That means no overflow Gatorade, Gu pack tops, or even urine. To avoid leaving human waste, you pee into a bucket in the potty tent which you then empty into a 55 Gallon drum that is shipped back to the mainland for disposal. If you should have the misfortune of needing to go #2, you get the treat of sitting on a modified folding chair which has the chair bottom removed and a toilet seat installed in its place. But, unlike just peeing into a bucket, you have to poop into a little plastic bag where you also put your toilet paper, then put that nice, warm package into its own disposal bin… I, thankfully, never had to poop that bad! I did, however, hurry up and pee in a bucket that a few of us guys were just using out in the open- none of the penguins seemed to be too offended.
Then I was beyond ready… And time kept ticking… With just over 6 hours left until the dreaded 168 hours, Steve P, Jagjit, and I were at the start line being… not so patient. I was hopping up and down, checking and rechecking my watch, and yelling that we need to get this thing started now! Others, even including males, were standing in line for the newly erected potty tents… it was about to drive me insane! I had just walked along part of the course and could see most of the rest of it. One thing was for sure, this course was nothing like the flat, road/sidewalk courses we’d run thus far. This course had over 2500’ of elevation climb in it, it was all rocks and mud and cold glacial streams. The downhills presented as much of a challenge as the climbs since all the footing was loose and the hills were so steep you simply couldn’t “freewheel” down them. Braking forces were going to be necessary, yet, counter-productive energy suckers all day. This was no “conserve my energy by running a 6 hour marathon” course, this was a “lock in the four wheel drive and push hard for 6 hours just to have a chance to beat the 168-hour cutoff” course… and there were still only 3 of us and a camera crew at the start line!
The camera crew was an unexpected surprise. They were Germans, a woman and 2 men, who were there, by coincidence, to film a documentary on the inhabitants of the research bases on Antarctica. When they found out our group was coming in to run the White Continent Marathon and that some of us were there on the last race of the 777Quest, they extended their stay and were there to document the whole thing! I’ll be interested to see this Spanish language documentary, filmed by Germans in Antarctica, featuring a bunch of English-speaking maniacs attempting to do something that had never been done before. As I became more and more impatient about this delay that could turn out to be the difference between finishing just under 7 days or just over it, the film crew documented my pre-race frenzy. They filmed a little pre-race interview with me and a couple others, but I’m sure I appeared distracted at best. Throughout the race, they liked to position themselves at the top of hills and watch as we struggled our way up to them. Near the top, across the crests, and part way down these hills, they used hand-held cameras, tripod mounts, microphones, and even a drone, to document the toil. At times, I was ready to talk, at other times I was so focused that all I could do was growl a couple words at them as I accelerated away. I could end up looking like a behemoth soothsayer or a big, bearded crazy man as they edit their extensive footage… guess that is just another of the things I can’t control.
At long last, the group was gathered and the race was officially started. I hadn’t done the exact math to the second, but I knew that all the various delays meant I would basically have to go sub-6 hour to be sure I’d make it under the 168-hour window. I knew that this wouldn’t be easy and had to push all sorts of negative, self-limiting thoughts out of my mind. Facts like these: The only trail marathons I’d ever done before in my life were at the 4 Corners Quad in December. 3 of those 4 races were trail marathons and 2 of the 3 took well over 6 hours to complete… on relatively fresh legs; I had already run 2 marathons this week that took over 6 hours and those were flat; and I was running my 7th marathon on 7 Continents in 7 days with all of the accumulated stress/strains that certainly didn’t make a trail marathon PR likely- even though that is what I would basically need in order to achieve the ultimate goal. The plain, stark fact was that this task was too much for me to physically accomplish. I needed more than my sore muscles and swollen, bruised feet had left in order to reach my goal. So, I turned inward to my mind. For a long time, I’ve said this kind of challenge is entirely mental. Guess what? I was wrong. My mind was beat too. Overrun with sleep deprivation, focus worn down by insurmountable obstacles that I couldn’t control, entertaining fallback positions of “I can still make it in 7 calendar days with the time zone offsets” and “I’ll still beat the old record even if I don’t cross in under 168 hours”, etc., my mind was into a problem solving mode, but the wrong type. The problem it was trying to solve was one of spinning a negative result to look positive… putting lipstick on a pig, not plotting a path to success… This dialogue went on inside my head as Steve P and I dashed out at a 7 minute per mile pace, quickly using up our precious little glycogen at this ridiculous anaerobic near-sprint, briefly leading the race... very briefly. Within the first mile, we had both settled into paces that were still unsustainable but weren’t leading the pack any longer. My mental game had cracked and I was just working on excuses to tell my friends, family, strangers, and all the school kids who had been following my journey. Then, without any real warning, something very special happened. This will be very difficult to put into words, so bear with me. As I sit here typing this, my heart is overflowing with emotion that I can’t even name. My eyes are tearing up, but not with sadness or even joy… I’m reliving the moment when my Spirit stepped out of the shadows and took over.
Sri Chimnoy would call this “Self-Transcendence”. Some may call it an “out of body experience”. I don’t know what to call it, but I’ll do my best to articulate what happened within me at about mile 2 of 26.2 on January 31, 2017 on King George Island, Antarctica. My body was screaming that I needed to slow down to a sustainable pace. My mind was trying to push my body against the 6-hour limit but simultaneously making excuses for why I would ultimately fall just a little bit short of the 777Quest. Then, the real power flooded in and immediately quieted those familiar competing parts of my “self”. The “me” that lives daily life, interacts with others, hungers, thirsts, lusts, rages, cries, thinks, plans, hurts, and otherwise identifies itself as Dave Jones; ceased to be relevant. I still had an awareness of mental thought and bodily function, but they were somehow relegated to an observer status. What took control was the best part of me. The master code, the spark, that which is the “image of my creator” now left its advisory role and took the reins. I suddenly "awoke" in a world where the pain existed but was of no consequence. My legs and feet were moving in a determined march but without all of the calculations about Lactic Acid, nutrition, hydration, foot placement, body temperature, heart rate, etc. that typically fill my consciousness. All that was there now was optimism, hope, faith, and the indisputable fact that I would ultimately cross that line in under 168 without any more need to fear. My legs ran and I didn’t grow weary. Others showed signs of struggle, I was being pushed. The Spirit had been there the whole time, but was unable to take the load as long as my mind and body refused to relinquish control. When my body and mind had both finally found their respective breaking points and the limits of my flesh had been exceeded, only then did I finally find what I’d been looking for: "Eternal Endurance"
Throughout my life, I have tried to mostly keep my spiritual beliefs to myself until someone asks or shows an overt interest in my beliefs on the subject. I don’t like it when people beat me over the head with their religious beliefs, even if I mostly share them. I am a Christian. I was raised in a Christian household and grew up in that faith tradition. I made the decision to be baptized sometime in my teens and used Biblical teaching, at least the parts I found convenient, as a macro guide for my life. I had a real eye-opening moment shortly after I graduated college that brought me back to actively seeking to know God’s will and to develop a closer relationship with Him. People who know me well, will likely tell you that I like to have fun and do my fair share of bad stuff, but that my compass does generally point up and I try to live a moral, if not pious, life. However, I have basically kept the proselytizing to a minimum and, if anything, have tried to be more of an example of Christ than an Evangelist. I’ve always believed that people will be more attracted to the God of Love, Grace, and Mercy who lives in me if I quietly demonstrate those things rather than getting entangled in intellectual arguments that often overshadow those foundations and pit people against people arguing over flesh-based details. I’m still not going to tell you how to live your life because that is between you and God. I’m certain that I don’t like to be judged by other people and I try to return the favor. But, after an experience like the one I had in that final 777 race, I’d be remiss to not, at least, bear witness to my firsthand experience of the reality of the Holy Spirit within me that tapped into a bottomless well of strength and power from the Creator of the Universe. I can’t rationally explain it. I’m sure plenty of scientists could dismiss it away, but their judgement isn’t important. What’s important is that I KNOW, through this experience, that the spirit overcame my weak body and my egotistical mind to carry me to the goal I so desired on that day, and I’m forever changed because of it. If you want to know more about it, how I knew the source, or what you can do to experience it too- I’d be happy to talk with you one on one.
Since this Quest took such an unexpected turn toward the Spiritual, I found myself, after the fact, wrestling with a moral matter that just didn’t sit right and needs resolved clearly and publicly. That is the issue of World Records. Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to be in the Guinness Book of World Records. I still do. But, it’s evidently not my time yet. As mentioned earlier, we just missed the window to even attempt to break the 2015 record for fastest male to complete a marathon on all 7 continents by a few hours. The good news is that Lisa Davis did finish fast enough to break the female version of that record…. Unfortunately, she didn’t apply for Guinness early enough, evidently unaware that she could be in a position to break the existing record, which she ultimately did by over 3 days! So, unless Guinness bends their own rules, the current record of nearly 11 days will continue to stand, even though I embraced Lisa as she crossed in 168 ½ hours and could testify in court that she absolutely completed every mile and smashed that record from 2015. Though I did apply and was accepted to attempt the male record, Guinness still has not acknowledged that what we did was fundamentally different from what Doug Wilson did as part of World Marathon Challenge, and so, no one from our group will receive Guinness recognition for what we did unless Guinness has a change of heart about the nature of our accomplishment. However, there is another record keeping organization called The Book of Alternative World Records. I was also accepted by them to attempt the apples-to-apples record of “Public” marathons on all 7 Continents and so was Lisa. She should certainly get that female record. I may get that male record. May? Why is that in question? Well, Dan Reeves is faster than me. He was faster in every single race. He was nearly 3 hours faster than me in Australia and Singapore… 3 hours! Though I had a transcendent experience, the thought of beating Dan frankly never entered my awareness during the Antarctica race. It was as if I was blind to the fact that he stood between me and the Alternative World Record. As it turned out, Dan beat me by just over 38 minutes and took 2nd place male in the race with a powerful time of 4:34:15 (only 6 minutes slower than my Personal Best ever!). While my 5:12:55 was good enough for 5th place male, was only 3 minutes slower than I ran Boston in 2014, and was my fastest of the 7 continents by over 1 minute per mile on the hardest course… I didn’t earn the World Record. Dan Reeves did. But, there's a SNAFU. Dan didn’t apply for any records, didn’t have any of the race verification letters signed from race to race, and as far as I know, has no intent of pursuing a record after the fact. So, in the interest of assuring that a male from our group does get some sort of World Record, I will be submitting my verification forms and will let the chips fall as they may. There is no doubt that we all achieved something great in 777Quest 2017. The fact that 2 half marathoners and 4 full marathoners finished all 7 public races in under 168 hours for the first time in human history is extraordinary. The fact that Steve P and Jagjit both buckled down in the final 10k and found what it took to get in under the 168-hour wire with just a couple minutes to spare was a thing of beauty. On the other hand, in my exuberance following the event, I blurted out to the film crew that I had won a World Record and I posted on my Facebook “Done! 7 Public Marathons on 7 Continents in under 168 hours for the first time in history!!” This post, not surprisingly, got picked up by my local newspaper and many friends as meaning that I won the World Record. If I do get a World Record, it is with an asterisk. So, even if I do technically end up with a world record or 2, its only because I was the 2nd person ever to do what I did and the only one to do all the paperwork to make it official. Now that I have that off my chest, I can go back to being ecstatic over my “Silver Medal” and, much more importantly, briefly shedding the burdens of my physical existence long enough to experience the power of Spirit-driven Eternal Endurance in Antarctica.
Since this blog has already passed 4500 words, I’ll stop here and come back for a “wrap-up” blog that includes my real polar plunge into the sub-freezing salt water of the Southern Ocean, a motorized raft trip to visit a penguin island, sleeping in a tent in Antarctica under the nighttime sun, the trip back North to make my 23rd Annual Shooperbowl Extravaganza a reality, and I'll also to let you know what comes next… stay tuned!