- April 1, 2013
- 8 comments
- Posted by EdGraham
- Adventures, Asia Travel, Destinations, Russia, Russia, Trans Siberian Railroad
Running a Winter Marathon… In Siberia. On Ice.
I try to seek out new and unique experiences when I travel, so I was very intrigued when I found out about the Baikal Ice Marathon a year and a half ago. I was returning from my first trip on the Trans Siberian Railway at the time, and I figured it’d be totally unrealistic to return so soon to a place as far away as Lake Baikal. That changed last year when I said “screw it” and I signed up for it anyway, knowing I could always back out. Soon after, one of my best friends and a good travel buddy unexpectedly passed away from cancer diagnosed just two weeks before he died. He was a guy who always lived life to the fullest both at home and on the road, and his grand adventures had continually inspired me to do the same. Attempting this race would be my own version of living a full life, and I knew then that I had to complete it. I started training in earnest and even made a short post about it: Running Across Lake Baikal.
Because this would be my first marathon, I wanted to make sure I could actually run 26.2 miles on concrete before trying to do so on ice. Three weeks before the race I set out on a 24.2 mile run at race pace because hey, if I could do 24.2 miles I could certainly do 26.2 – I’d crawl the last 2 if I had to. Now, If you’ve done any sort of marathon training before, you already know how dumb an idea that is. Running past about 20 miles stresses the body in ways short distances do not, and doing it at race pace is about the worst thing you can do on a long distance training run. I know this now because I learned it the hard way – I messed up my knee pretty badly.
I could barely walk for several days, and I felt pain all the time. By the time I got to St. Petersburg it had been a full week since my injury so I tried a light training run of 3 miles. I made it about 1 before I was forced to walk. Nothing is frustrating like having run all winter outdoors in Chicago, dealing with snow, sleet, ice and windchills; putting in all that preparation only to unintentionally throw it all away just 3 weeks before the run. I took the remaining two weeks mostly off except for two very short training runs, and my knee hurt the entire time. I was concerned. I decided I’d give it my all, injuries be damned, and if I failed to finish I’d come back again the following year.
The race began with a shot. Vodka has been used in prior years, but this year plain old milk was the drink of choice. We dipped our fingers in the milk and flicked it in each direction (north, south, east, west) to pacify the spirits of the Great Baikal. We then gathered near the start point for a short countdown and we were off.
The first half of the race was run on the black ice pictured above. The temperature hovered around 30° F, just barely below freezing and much warmer than expected. The sun was shining with minimal wind, and many of us runners got too hot which necessitated removing our outer layers (I started with 4 layers). The wind picked up a bit during the second half of the race which made for cooler conditions. It’s tough running in sub freezing windchills when you’re already covered in sweat, but all those cold weather training runs helped. The real challenge was the snow – the second, eastern half of the lake was covered in snow, some of which was fairly deep. By then I was both tired and cold, and it was tough.
I ran slowly and deliberately throughout the race, and I walked plenty too. I didn’t want to fall on the ice, and I needed to nurse my knee. Maybe the pre-race shot ritual worked – amazingly, I felt minimal pain in my knee, but my legs were noticeably weaker from having not worked out for three weeks. This really became an issue towards the end of the race when I had to walk. My body had literally nothing left.
It felt indescribably great to eventually cross the finish line. Cold, tired, numb. It didn’t matter. It was so nice to be able to say goodbye to my friend in my own way.