THE CHUNKY, BRINY ICE crackles underneath our Zodiac inflatable dinghy as we cruise gently through the calm water, a deep blue-gray. In the distance, glaciers streaked with veins of electric blue stand like massive cathedral walls surrounding Neko Harbor. Just ahead, gentoo penguins dot the shore of the cobble beach, calling out like a noisy choir of kazoos.
Off the port side, the dark body of a humpback whale emerges, blowing mist into the air. Our expedition leader eases off the Zodiac's throttle, allowing the passengers, 12 of us bedecked in wet skins and waterproof boots, to scramble for a good line of sight, our excited whispers punctuated by the click-click of our cameras.
We are on the northwest coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, where the midday temperatures average around 30 degrees during the tourist season from November to late March and where most of the continent's wildlife lives. To get here, we left Ushuaia, Argentina, at the tip of South America aboard a former research vessel and made a two-day, belly-churning voyage across the Drake Passage. That ship will serve as our floating hotel as we explore the peninsula, a long mountainous arm that extends from the continent. The trip, organized by Boston-based Marathon Tours & Travel, is not only a chance to encounter majestic whales and hundreds of inquisitive penguins up close, it also offers the opportunity to run a marathon in one of the world's last unspoiled wildernesses.
I've taken this trip twice now, in 2013 and again this year. Though I had already completed four marathons and two half-marathons, including two overseas in Berlin and Rome, I consider myself an average runner — my times range between 4½ and 5½ hours. Still, I was drawn to the Antarctica Marathon because it provides just the right amount of physical exertion with the chance to explore the great outdoors, an appealing combination for a novice adventurer such as myself.
IN 1995, THOM GILLIGAN, president of Marathon Tours & Travel, staged the first Antarctica Marathon on King George Island. The race remains one of the globe's toughest courses — a hilly, often icy, and almost always muddy 26.2-mile stretch made more challenging by ever-changing weather. Gilligan says it "can crush the hearts of even the most determined people." Typical times range between 5½ and 6½ hours, and a handful of runners, including myself, opt to tackle the half-marathon instead.
The event attracts athletes from around the world — 17 countries were represented this March — and only a hundred slots are available for each race. This year, Gilligan added a second race on a separate day. Even with the additional race, the trip is sold out for 2015 and 2016 (though there is a wait list). Some passengers travel with fellow runners or bring along a family member for support. Others, like me, make the journey alone and relish the chance of meeting new people with a shared love for running. Packages start at $7,000, which includes a three-night stay in Buenos Aires. The price is high, but it brings unquestionable payoffs.
As great as the race is, it is overshadowed by the daily excursions and the experience of being in a place unsullied by modern industry. "It's like stepping into the most beautiful postcard, actually jumping inside it and living, breathing the landscape," says David Weber, a destination marathoner from Forest Hills, New York.
On one calm and overcast day, our ship scoots into Paradise Bay, not far from Neko Harbor. We set out for a hike up the steep slope overlooking the bay. At the top, we are damp with sweat and breathless. We turn and speed down the soft-packed snow like school kids on the playground slide. Later, piling into a handful of Zodiacs, we cruise behind a rocky outcrop joined by a leopard seal, which playfully follows our boat, twisting and turning in the water, popping its head up, and then disappearing again.
DURING THE MOST RECENT tourist season, November 2013 to March 2014, 37,405 visitors journeyed to Antarctica, most traveling via ships carrying no more than 500 passengers, according to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators. Bringing visitors to and from the continent while ensuring minimal impact on the environment requires rigorous planning and logistics. Operators must adhere to measures outlined by the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, designating Antarctica as a place "devoted to peace and science," and the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, a set of guidelines governing visitor activity. Among other responsibilities, Gilligan's marathon staff must ensure that no one brings food containing nuts or seeds onto the continent and that runners don't litter.
"It's comparable to planning a trip to outer space with all of the checks and double-checks," says Andrew Prossin, the managing director of One Ocean Expeditions, a Canadian company with which Gilligan partners. They're the people whose ship got us here from Ushuaia. Prossin has been leading expeditions to Antarctica for more than 20 years and notes that most of his clients come well traveled and eager to learn about the delicate environment. Besides shuttling passengers, Prossin's staff manages everything from briefings that lay out environmental protocol to keeping guests an appropriate distance from the wildlife.
Back out in the Zodiac, we zoom behind Neko Harbor's rocky outcrop, our guide intent on catching a glimpse of another humpback whale. We keep our eyes peeled as we bounce along, the spray from the water pelting our faces. As we pause to take pictures of a crabeater seal napping on an iceberg, the dark shape begins to emerge, almost imperceptible at first. And then it rises, its giant head emerging just behind our boat, its ancient body covered in bulbous knobs. It hangs for moment, as if suspended, and then disappears into the dark blue deep.
The next opening for the 15-day Antarctica Marathon trip, hosted by Marathon Tours & Travel (617-242-7845; antarcticamarathon.com), is March 2017. If you want to travel sooner, consider one of these outfits (you'll have to forgo the marathon):
Quark Expeditions (888-979-1167; quarkexpeditions.com) offers packages to Antarctica, including cruises through the South Georgia and Falkland islands. Trips are available in November and start at $8,995.
Oceanwide Expeditions (800-453-7245; oceanwide-expeditions.com) offers cruises to Antarctica as well as the South Atlantic islands. There are openings in November; prices start at $5,500.