Onward and southward Orlova steamed. Inside the Divergence the air was colder, mercifully the sea was calmer. We were riding on the edge of the world. The sun sat low, the sky a deeper, more meaningful blue. The air, the sun and the sky become noticeable at these latitudes. What of the terra incognita – the unknown land? In ancient times its existence was even doubted – a fearful place in the imagination. What would I find there? Black sea – icebergs more plentiful – ah those fears of the unknown. Nagging, yet irrational fears of uncertainty were haunting me.
Land is scarce in the Antarctic Circle, not much where you can run a marathon. Off the Antarctic Peninsula lies King George Island- there partly over rough ground, partly over glacier ice would be my place of reckoning. Out in the mists of doubt and fear – there lay the start and finish. At Russia’s Bellingshausen station – a forlorn amalgam of brightly painted packing cases my fate and my medal was waiting.
“Good afternoon, we have our first sighting of King George Island” The accented female voice over the ship’s speaker system. “If you wish to take a look, the island is just off the port bow”. King George appeared a dark mass on the horizon. A large block of black rock rising from the sea – a forbidding reminder of tomorrow.
Orlova came into Maxwell Bay and there was another ship at anchor. The Sarpik left Ushuaia two days earlier for the organising crew to mark out and measure the course. King George Island, the largest of the South Shetlands, from the boat I could make out the buildings near the shore line.
This place, unlike anywhere else in Antarctica is crowded with habitation – muddy and uneven roads and even an airstrip. Late in 2007 the airstrip played a vital role in the rescue of survivors of a Canadian cruise ship that sank after striking an iceberg. Luckily, all 154 passengers escaped after enduring hours of bobbing in lifeboats before being rescued by a Norwegian ship.
King George roughly 70 kilometres long and 25 kilometres wide is mostly covered with ice, but at its southern tip are small patches of weather beaten land. As perfect as anything Antarctica could offer for this adventure. From where I stood, off the starboard bow I could see a glacier – a white mountainous icy mass coming down to the sea. The small stretches of beach are rough, dark gravel. It was foggy and cold – mid-afternoon and it was already getting dark. “Collins” a fellow runner standing next to me. “That’s the Collins Glacier – the one we will run up tomorrow”. The glaciers of this island have retreated significantly during the past 15 years. Collins is where I’ll meet my fate. Dear God, what was I letting myself in for?