Dr. Dave King, a trauma surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital, will arrive in Antarctica next weekend and on March 9 will run in a marathon there, not fully knowing what to expect. In his line of work, figuring things out on the fly is as essential as knife and scalpel.
“Cold, windy, and hilly,’’ said King, pondering the variables of the 26-plus miles that await him. “Antarctica, in my head at least, is flat and icy . . . but apparently it’s quite hilly and the course is sort of this dirty, sandy snow.’’
There is also the chance of mud, lots and lots of mud. According to Thom Gilligan, whose Chelsea-based Marathon Tours originated the Antarctica Marathon in 1995, it’s possible the icy continent will deliver a muck-filled slog with summer now in its final throes. No telling. Monday could be mid-30s with mud oozing like lava, or it could be single digits with a 40-mile-an-hour wind capable of turning flesh into marble (think: Boston, February 2015, only with slightly less snow).
“Some snow, some ice, some mud,’’ conjured a wistful Gilligan, whose annual Antarctica race is sold out through 2017 (see: marathontours.com). “You just never know till race day.’’
King, 42, signed up for big ice on a whim some five years ago and, by his count, Antarctica will be his 50th-something marathon. He is not certain of the exact number. A cross-country runner of little note in his high school days at Mount St. Charles (Woonsockett, R.I.), he took up running marathons about a dozen years ago, with no typical runner’s trophy case or bucket list in mind.
“I’d run a race, and at the end I’d throw my bib in the garbage,’’ recalled King, who also maintains a reservist-like role as a lieutenant colonel in the Army, called to battlefields when needed to mend the injured. “And if the race [included] a medal, I’d throw that in the garbage, too, and go home. I did that for years before I started recognizing it’s somehow cool to keep your bibs and your medals. It seems absurd now that I did that, but at the time I had no idea.’’
And though Cambridge is his home, and downtown Boston his workplace, King also isn’t certain of the number of times he has run Boston. He figures it’s around a half-dozen, give or take a Heartbreak Hill. He is positive, however, that he’ll have Boston on his mind, especially the tragedy of 2013, when he runs at the bottom of our planet.
Part of what attracted him to Antarctica was its barrenness, its solitude, its elegant simplicity. Boston is not that. Nor is the New York City Marathon. King remembers being startled in the fall of 2013, just months after the Boston bombings, that the New York race began with a cannon blast at the start line in Staten Island.
“It startled not just me but a lot of people,’’ he recalled. “When the cannon went off, um, I have to say, I am sure there were some guys that were unfazed, but almost everyone in my starting corral stopped and froze for a second. It was clear to me people were on edge. You couldn’t dismiss it.’’
On Patriots Day, 2013, King remembers crossing the Boston finish line “about an hour early.’’ For the record, that’s about 60 minutes before the bombs detonated.
His wife, two young daughters, and his parents were there, too, he said, all standing adjacent to where the second blast occurred. Had King not been that hour early, no telling what fate’s hand might have dealt that day. But when the carnage came, the Kings were all in a cab headed home, far enough away that they didn’t hear either blast.
The texts to King’s cellphone began even before the cab pulled up at his home near the Museum of Science. Was he all right? How bad it was it? Was everyone OK? Within moments of arriving home, King was in his own car, wife Anne Marie at the wheel, headed to the MGH operating rooms. None of it made sense, the details weren’t clear. He pulled up to MGH as the initial wave of ambulances arrived. He would operate on the wounded through the night and well into the next day.
“I’d seen identical things before,’’ said King, noting trauma cases in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as his Army work in the wake of the earthquake in Haiti. “I knew in an instant from the injury pattern. As soon as I saw the first patient, I knew the whole story, back to front.’’
Other than the snap of a stiff wind, running shoes crunching on snow, or the yelp of a cranky penguin, King figures his race in Antarctica will be all but silent. One year, noted Gilligan, one interloping penguin popped out of nowhere and scooted across the finish line (the rare rosie penguin species, no doubt).
It will be a race, said King, amid all of Antarctica’s open space, with no more than some 90 other runners out there with him, during which he’ll be thinking of Boston.
“It gets into your head, these questions of why,’’ he said. “I know a lot of the patients by name, all the ones I took care of . . . and found myself asking that same question. Why them? Why did Martin Richard die outright? Why did another live? Or Krystle Campbell, why did she get killed? It seems she was a fairly good distance away from the bomb.
“And I constantly ask myself the most ironic question, which is, it was the bombing of a marathon where no marathoners were injured. Just spectators. It just seems weird. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around that. So, I certainly think about other races while I run. I don’t know exactly what I am going to be thinking of in Antarctica, but I expect I’ll be thinking about Boston 2013 quite a bit.’’
Boston 2013. It is the race impossible for us to leave behind, be the distance measured in miles or time.