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Gregory McCarthy finishes Antarctic race, has run marathons on seven continents

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 19, 2009; C03

It was 16 degrees Fahrenheit, but, to his wonder, he was sweating.

Gatorade was being served warm on the bottom of the world, but since he was hot, he added snow, which was not in short supply.

After two days of windy whiteout blizzards, the footing was unstable. It was like running 26.2 miles on four inches of sugar.

Gregory McCarthy made it. He finished the 2009 Antarctic Ice Marathon on Tuesday, by far the hardest challenge in his quest to run marathons on all seven continents.

"I'm glad it's over," he said by satellite phone from outside his tent on the ice. "It's definitely a sense of achievement."

"I thought my knees were going to give out," added McCarthy, 48, vice president of the Washington Nationals. "The repetitive motion, slipping and sliding left and right. It took me an hour and a half to get to the first station, five miles out. I was like, 'Oh my God, this is going to be long.' "

So it was -- 8 hours 36 minutes 20 seconds. That's almost twice as long as his previous slowest marathon time.

The winner, Jason Wolfe, a 33-year-old mountaineer from Chicago, finished in 4:46:50.

All 17 competitors completed the marathon, with no more serious problems than cramping, according to organizers. Eight of them needed more than eight hours to finish. A woman from Brazil took an overnight break and finished the next day with a time of more than 27 hours. McCarthy came in 14th.

But then, as marathoners like to say, nobody loses a marathon. Especially not an event in one of the most inhospitable environments on Earth. Unlike many of the competitors, extreme sportsmen and women of various sorts, McCarthy is your average Washington office guy, infected with wanderlust and a passion for running.

The race, set on a figure-eight route hundreds of miles inland, had been delayed three days by poor weather. Tuesday, the day of the race, was glorious.

"To call the scenery spectacular is an understatement," McCarthy said. "When you look out one side, it's a plain of endless white. On the other side, incredible peaks of snow-covered granite."

The sky was clear, and the bright, never-setting sun reflected off the snow. Every five or six miles, McCarthy would chill his Gatorade at an aid station and exchange his sweaty inner layer for a fresh shirt. Otherwise, sweat can freeze.

McCarthy had hoped he might be the first from Washington to run the seven continents. Since news of his quest broke last week, two other contenders for the title have emerged.

Robert D. Barry, 71, a retired economist, bagged his seventh continent with a marathon in Luxor, Egypt, in 2007, when he was 68. He ran all seven while in his 60s.

Blaise Supler, 49, a public defender in Farmington, N.M., ran the continents between 1991 and 2000 when she lived in D.C. (Some might put an asterisk next to her name: One of her marathons was in New Zealand, which the Seven Continents Club of marathoners counts in the continent of Oceania. For the record, the National Geographic Society calls Oceania a continental group, while the actual continent is limited to Australia.)

But, as McCarthy quipped before his feat, he may be the first seven-continenter from Ward 2: Barry lives in Ward 3, and Supler lived in Ward 6.

Now McCarthy is contemplating the other end of the planet, where there is also a marathon.

"I'm not ruling out the North Pole," he said. "I've got the brochure. I'm going to think about it."

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