Running Wanderlust

How I lost my words on the Antarctic whiteness

In Punta Arenas, the wind has been blowing 40 knots (~70kph), violently shaking trees and signposts, since last night. I just woke up from six quality hours of sleep. After speaking with my dear troopers in Melbourne before they hit the pillow, I felt fully recharged. Today is one of those days I feel I could either run a fast marathon, or write a full chapter in the book that has seen more insides of trash bins than the designers at Vipp. I often feel that way a few days after I tick off a significant goal.
It is very different to how I felt yesterday, as we spent the whole day packing up then killing time from the Union Glacier Camp and heading to my now favourite airlifter Ilyushin 76 for a five hour flight away from Antarctica. On the 3km long blue ice runway, about 1,100km from the South Pole, the wind was blowing 30 knots, just within the safe flight landing and takeoff limits, making the -20°C feel more like -30°C on the skin surface, at which temperature no amount of motion could keep one warm, and the body would feverishly burn energy to keep the body sufficiently heated.
Seven days earlier
One of the apartments at the aptly named block where I stayed – The Endurance – was pumping out this track:
Yesterday I had it all
worked out to a tee
But now something’s wrong 
between you and me
Perhaps inconsistency and confusion were the factors that limited the Harem Scarem boys’ popularity to just their native Canada, and Japan, where learning English was, and still is, regarded by the Japanese as harder than climbing Mount Fuji.
In these lyrics, they had the word “now” but I suspect it was just a filler word, as there was nothing about the present in them. It was explicitly about the past and an implicit yearning for the future when this “wrong situation” would be resolved. The now was only an execuse.
The present presents. Presents what, you might ask? Stay silent for a minute, resist the temptation to ask, and you might see.
At times when I used the present only as an excuse towards the future, like what Harem Scarem did, or when I tried to escape from the present, I found myself missing life altogether.
Punta Arenas, a gateway in Chilean Patagonia, breathes life. Not in a dynamic man-made fashion, but in a naturally understated way. It feels like a city that knows how to live in the present. And that is probably why many tourists do not like it. There is not much to see here. Nor are there many Facebook-worthy activities to engage one’s senses. People use Punta Arenas to launch into Torres del Paine, to see penguins, to sail, or to head over to Antarctica. But as I have learnt to pause now and then, I have also realised that sometimes launching pads are some of the best things that happened in my life, like my home and family, like the myths and legends of where I came from, like my own sufferings, albeit so insignificant compared to many others’.
Thus, I have made it a ritual to pause and spend time with the “launching pads”.
… to spend time in little towns before reaching the final destinations. 
… to look properly into a stranger’s eyes and acknowledge his presence after he opens the door for me.
… to linger by a dry river before heading up summits or exploring new territories.
When a river is full and flowing, her banks are filled with many who would stop by, admire and take photos of her, or photos of themselves next to her, similar to how tigers and dogs leave their scent on trees. But after the harsh summer has sucked out all the water in the river, leaving rocks and stones in the riverbed barren and exposed, the admirers and photographers are often nowhere to be seen. She is still the same river. The rationalist would think about alternative water sources or filling up the river using pumps, and decide that it is not worth the effort. The existentialist would seek something else more lively and engaging. The nihilist would despair or even contemplate suicide. But the artist’s heart would ache. She would linger and talk to the river, her outpourings filling up the river once more.
The office of the Antarctica Logistics & Expeditions company was next to the dry Río de Las Minas. I am sure that most people who walked to the office that morning would not notice that a river was there. Nothing was open until 8:30-9am, even cafés. I had found one café, probably the only one in town, opened at 7am but well hidden from foreign eyes, where I had my sandwich de chorizo y mozzarella and coffee while watching the locals going about the morning routine. Most tourists in town were probably having breakfast where they stayed.
Born in a country with many rules and regulations but little effectiveness to speak of, and living in a country obsessed with rules and regulations, I appreciated the sight of a random jet plane on the side of the road, of smiles from the traffic police when I strode across an empty street on red light. As in any environment, more rules and more regulations usually mean more sticky tapes that try to hide away something very messy at the core. An effective solution to a complex problem tends to be KISS’d, less not more. Punta Arenas did not seem to have a lot of rules, but somehow things just worked. Contrasts were combined in harmony, rules broken in order, colour weaving colour without pre-conception, the new nesting inside the old, no-style overlaying style. Whereas in other places you might have found a latest Gaggenau, all with blinking lights and wifi ready, waiting to impress the nouveau riche and to demand top dollarshere you would find a kettle that must have been handed down three generations, no more even and polished, but still functional in the whistling old-fashioned way, sitting well amongst rusty walls filled with memorabilia, odds and pieces from four corners of the world, and a ceiling supported with aging timber covered with patches of artistic strokes created in the spur of the moment. Nothing looked like it had been planned. Everything worked. It could be a Punta Arenas thing. It could even be a Latin America thing.
But another traveller, of course, could easily find a reason to complain. Or to ignore Punta Arenas. 
About fifty of us turned up for the final briefing before the Antarctic expedition. It was a real expedition, military style all the way from equipment to precision to discipline, but the logistics company would do all the work. We were expected to organise our own gear, follow orders, and stay safe and sound in extreme conditions for three to five days. If the weather were to turn against us, the expedition might turn into weeks. I found it funny but understandable that we were all military going into one of the last few places on earth that had never seen a war. I explored the option of climbing Mount Vinson after the marathon, but I would have needed 10 more days near the South Pole and spent a lot more money, so it was an easy strikeoff.
The flight to Antarctica was operated by Air Almaty, apparently a cargo airline based in Almaty, Kazakhstan. We were all issued a boarding pass with no seat numbers, as seats are only fitted on the Ilyushin when the cargo includes human passengers. In fact, humans are appropriately considered part of the “load” or cargo on this sort of aircrafts. Perhaps as we were considered “load”, there had been no airport security applied to our boarding process. Nobody had checked passports or boarding passes. The same thing happened later on the return flight. You could imagine when these flights would one day be filled, not with marathon runners or mountain climbers, but with smugglers. The person who distributed food and drinks to us during the flight was called the Load Master. The Load Master came across as a hardened well trained Russian military operator, but he looked so friendly and smiled constantly that I was sure I saw more smiles from him than from all the other Russians I had met in my life. His colleagues included an Engineer and a Pilot. The Engineer, true to heritage, looked stoic and never smiled. He tried to smile but actually looked a bit annoyed as excited passengers came up to take selfies with him. Some of them had not even asked him for permission first, so the fact that he tried to smile at all and even forced a reluctant pose for the camera was a credit to how nice he was. 
Stepping out onto the blue ice runway and coming into direct contact with the coldness that was Antarctica, I realised why this sort of extreme environment would require the utmost care from operators. In fact, there had never been any aircraft accidents in Antarctica. The wind was blowing ice fast by your feet, so it felt like you were actually moving whilst being dead still. And with the wind, the cold arrived. After about an hour of waiting, a couple of snow vehicles carried us to the Union Glacier Camp, the only privately operated camp in Antarctica. Shielded by the Ellsworth Mountains, the camp operates for only 3 months during the Antarctic summer. 
The camp was quite comfortable, partly because the 24-hour sun acted as a natural heater. When it got too cold or windy outside, we could always hide in our private tent or the communal tent where people hung out for meals or chitchat. All activities on camp were subject to the weather. Out of the 50 odd staff, 2 were dedicated full time to weather and safety. On the glacier, crevasses were aplenty. You could imagine the mount of work required for the organisers to identify and mark a safe course for marathoners to run on.  
Race day came quickly, after a delay of one day due to extreme weather. Having run a trial 3 miles on the snow surface the day before and learnt how soft and debilitating the ground was in long stretches, I decided that the game plan was to take it easy in the first half and try to find my rhythm. I also fiddled with layering so that the deadly combination of sweating, overheating and wind would not strike during the run. It turned out that it was impossible to find my rhythm throughout. The ground was too tricky and unpredictable, made worse by low contrast caused by the strong glare from the vast whiteness under my feet. The whole run turned into a mental game from the start. I made a point to spend a long time at each checkpoint to enjoy the wilderness and take a few photos, and that turned out to be the right call. On one hand, I wanted to run faster to end all this pain. On the other hand, I wanted the race to be longer so that I could extend these special moments on the Antarctic ice. When packs of runners began to thin out mid race, the silence came. My footsteps became thunderous. At times I would stop just to feel the stillness. Antarctica was quiet. My mind was still. My sense of self evaporated. Everthing blurred into motion over stillness, void of identities.
“I am not supposed to be here”, I thought. This place was too pristine for humans. Being the driest desert on earth, this glacier does not nurture any living things. It was just us and the whiteness and the rocks. And the wind that lorded over everything. At one point, as my slow and tiring footsteps were making so much noise, I felt so guilty about it. I tried to change my running gait to make less noise. Before I knew it, I was flying through a few miles (by my low standard), and found myself at the finish line. It was this sprint that turned my run into negative split territory, the only second time I ever did so over the marathon distance. I had started mid pack, and finished mid pack, just under six and a half hours. Excluding nearly an hour spent at checkpoint, that would have been a little over five and a half hours running time. I was happy with the result as this surface seemed to add about fifty percent to one’s regular road running time. The Irish marathon champ Gary Thornton won the race in 3:37. His personal best time had been 2:17.
I had come to Antarctica with a lot of notes and ideas to write about. Antarctica took away most of them, leaving me cleansed and clear headed. The day after the marathon, I played volleyball and went mountain biking with a couple of fellow runners. Knowing that there would be a hot 3-minute shower waiting for me at camp later on, I found a spot on the whiteness and sat down for my meditation pose. I wanted to just sit there for a while, but in this environment, you needed to keep on moving. People were constantly watching for your return as a safety measure. The wind could turn anytime. As I sit here in Punta Arenas writing these lines, it still reminds me that life is not as solid as it seems, and that it is important to “for God’s sake, look after our people” – in R. Scott’s famous last words. Nearly 105 years after R. Amundsen first erected a flag at the South Pole, standing in a tent squinting my eyes at the sun that never slept, I felt indebted to the exploits of these early adventurers, and suddenly realised that my words were becoming utterly useless.
Here is an excerpt from Live Science:
On Jan. 16, after a two-and-a-half month slog across a glacier, over the Transantarctic Mountains, and through blinding snow, the team discovered they’d been beaten to the South Pole.
Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had gotten there first, on Dec. 14, 1911, a full month before Scott and his four companions spotted a telltale flag whipping in the wind over the coveted spot.
“It is a terrible disappointment, and I am very sorry for my loyal companions,” Scott wrote on the occasion. 
From there, things only got worse. Hampered by the tightening stranglehold of Antarctic winter, Scott lost two of his men. Petty Officer Edgar Evans was done in by injury, and, hobbled by frostbite, Lawrence Oates famously sacrificed himself by walking out alone into a snowstorm to avoid slowing his companions’ progress.
“He said, ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’ He went out into the blizzard and we have not seen him since,” Scott wrote on March 16.
On Thursday, March 29, Scott recorded his final entry:
“We had fuel to make two cups of tea apiece and bare food for two days on the 20th. Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for any better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far.
It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.
For God’s sake look after our people.”
I am now the first Vietnamese who has completed a marathon in Antarctica, and will soon be the first Vietnamese member of the Seven Continents Club. Although the boys would undoubtedly think that these feats are cool, more than ever, I feel insignificant, but strangely, there is no self loathing. I feel whole and at peace. Before departing from Antarctica, I left a few notes for my children in the guest diary. Perhaps one day as existential questions start to trouble their pristine minds, they might decide to go to Union Glacier and read them.