By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 11, 2009
On Saturday, weather permitting, Gregory McCarthy of Washington will stand on the bottom of the planet, toeing a lonely starting line in the snow, and in the utter silence and majestic whiteness of that place, he will commence to run a marathon.
The average temperature of the inland Antarctic race course is about 5 degrees Fahrenheit. The snow and ice are hundreds of feet deep. There is no life, except for the human visitors. A cold, constant and potentially deadly wind blows from the South Pole, hundreds of miles farther south.
Surely they have their reasons, these 18 men and three women, for running in the fifth annual Antarctic Ice Marathon or -- for the hardiest -- the Antarctic 100K. At a minimum, when it's all over and if they survive, they will be able to say they've done it, and that is something.
McCarthy's reason is sort of existential. It has to do with getting older, taking stock, thinking about one's place in the indifferent stream of time. What distinguishes a man? There is the good he has done, the difference he has made, the love he has shared. At 48, the vice president of the Washington Nationals has all that covered. But a little persistent part of him yearns to etch one small mark in eternity that is unique.
"I've been running out of things I could ever be the first to do," he says.
If McCarthy crosses the finish line in Antarctica, he will have run marathons on all seven continents. Only a few hundred people have ever done that, according to those who keep track.
It's a select group, but still a crowd. Could McCarthy be the first Washingtonian?
Veteran local runners contacted by The Washington Post have not been able to think of anyone from Washington who has run marathons on seven continents. Some, like Jeffrey Horowitz, have run in Antarctica, but not on all seven. Others from the region, like Jerry Langan, have run all seven continents, but live outside the city. Still, no one can say with certainty that no one from D.C. has done it.
"I'm loath to say I'm the first," McCarthy said during his final week of preparations. "I'm at least the first from Ward 2! Or Logan Circle! Or my street!"
He laughed. All this "first" business can get a little nutty. Define a challenge narrowly enough and you will be the first to conquer it.
The world of extreme endurance events is full of creative record-setting. Climb the highest peak on each continent. Run across each entire continent. Run a marathon in every state. Be the youngest person. Be the youngest woman. Someone not only ran marathons on seven continents, he did it in 29 days. Then someone else did it in 5 days 10 hours.
McCarthy is different from most of the insane ice runners. He is neither a mountaineer, skier, cold-weather researcher or extreme athlete of any kind. Just because he has run 13 marathons in his relatively brief running career means nothing. Running a marathon is no longer special. Once a year, every city that matters in the world is overrun with runners on that city's marathon day. Nowadays anybody can run a marathon, and anybody does.
McCarthy is just your basic Washington office guy. For the Nationals, he attends to government and municipal affairs. Before that, he was former mayor Anthony Williams's deputy chief of staff. He doesn't consider himself athletically coordinated. He doesn't consider himself much of an athlete at all. His fastest marathon was 3 hours 37 minutes, which is good but not amazing.
"I'm more like this guy who tries hard and has a passport," he said.
His first marathon was the Marine Corps Marathon in 2002, which he ran because he had turned 40 and wanted to prove something to himself. He kept on running. Berlin. Beirut. Sydney.
It dawned on him: That's a lot of continents!
Next thought: Is Beirut in Asia?
On to Buenos Aires, then Cape Town.
Six down, one to go.
A ballpark is a good place to have your office if you are a runner. McCarthy runs around the inside of the stadium at lunch. Once a week he runs with Mayor Adrian Fenty's pre-dawn running posse. On weekends he runs with the mayor's father, Phil Fenty, in the Fleet Feet running group organized by the Fenty family's running-shoe store.
"He told me he was scared," said Phil Fenty, who has been McCarthy's running mentor and sneaker adviser since the beginning. "I told him that's good. You need to have those butterflies."
This weekend, the interlocking local running and political communities will be logging onto the ice marathon's Web site to follow McCarthy's progress. The converted Russian transport plane carrying the runners was set to take off from Punta Arenas, Chile, Thursday for the 4 1/2 -hour flight to a blue ice runway near Patriot Hills, Antarctica. But the weather in Antarctica was poor, and they'll try again Friday morning.
"When he told me he was going to run in Antarctica, I thought it was a little crazy," said D.C. Council member Jack Evans, who ran his first marathon, at 50, alongside his old friend McCarthy, in what was also McCarthy's marathon debut, for some of the same existential reasons.
"He's found a different way to push himself," said Mayor Fenty, who has run about a dozen marathons.
McCarthy said he had to take out a loan to cover the approximately $17,000 cost. He is single with no children. He says his mother is worried.
One afternoon he's wearing his bright yellow Boston Marathon shirt and panting lightly as he runs around the empty ballpark.
"I'm worried about the physical challenge for sure," he says, as he rounds the outfield. "It's also the psychological challenge" of being in such a cold, remote, monochrome place. Then again, "that could work both ways. It could provoke some kind of a spiritual experience."
Training to run in Antarctica is a little different. McCarthy focused on strength and endurance, rather than speed. At first he thought he could just walk if he got in trouble. But he was told you must not spend too many hours in the elements. You also don't want to get too hot, which happens. Your sweat tends to freeze.
The man behind this madness is Richard Donovan, an Irish extreme endurance runner. He's the guy who did the seven continents in under six days, and he organizes the Antarctic Ice Marathon.
"People like to go to the [South] Pole, but they need an excuse to do it," he says. "Something physical to earn your place on the continent. The marathon is another part of the trip."
The commercially operated base camp is a small society of extreme adventurers. Skiers, mountain climbers and trekkers also bunk there. All sleep in two-person tents, heated only by the 24-hour sun this time of year. There's a communal dining shelter.
(One marathon wasn't enough for this empty continent. A separate outfit runs the annual Antarctica Marathon on an island.)
Donovan marks out the figure-eight course in the packed snow with bright orange flags. In one direction, the vista is nothing but plains of ice; in another, hills and peaks. "It's spectacularly beautiful," Donovan says. There are aid stations and checkpoints every five or six miles. The fastest time last year was 4 hours 36 minutes 53 seconds; the slowest, 7 hours 1 minute 13 seconds.
Everyone and everything is at the mercy of the weather. The marathon can't be run if the wind is too strong. But it's not canceled. The runners wait. Same with the flight back to Punta Arenas. Last year, some runners unexpectedly spent Christmas in Antarctica.
"I got up this morning and all I could think of was, 'God, it's cold,' " McCarthy said Sunday, when the morning temperature in Washington was in the mid-30s.
Then he was off, in pursuit of his own small claim to immortality.
Will it be enough? Look at Donovan. Running seven continents in 5 days 10 hours was not enough. Donovan dreams of his next first: While he says others have run across the six other continents, he wants to be the first to run across Antarctica.
McCarthy thought marathons on seven continents was the ultimate. Then recently he heard about "seven continents plus the North Pole."
Now there's a North Pole Marathon, too, also organized by Donovan.
"No," says McCarthy. No, he will not run a marathon at the North Pole.
But ask him in a few weeks, after he's unfurled his Washington Nationals and Washington, D.C. flags in Antarctica and is pondering what's next.