There are plenty of popular and wise places on earth to run your first marathon, the general advice being to avoid anything or anywhere too extreme. Seán Tobin went the opposite way about it, and in more ways than one.
Because while most of the country was braced for the Arctic-like conditions throughout this week, Tobin was among the naturally select few runners embracing the Antarctic Ice Marathon, which the Tipperary athlete won in a course record time of 2:53:33 – an impressive debut even by any usual standard course.
Staged to coincide with the Antarctica’s 24 hours of continuous daylight in December, the 17th edition of the event at about 80 Degrees South did benefit from reasonably good conditions, even with temperatures hovering around the -14º mark (or more like -22º when the fierce Antarctic winds are considered).
A guest of race director Richard Donovan, the Galway ultra-marathon runner who himself is no stranger to extreme events, Tobin was the runaway winner too – the 28 year-old from Clonmel finishing over half an hour clear of second placed Joan Pere Carbonell Alberti from Spain, who clocked 3:29:04.
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The lowest temperature ever recorded on earth was -94.7°, in eastern Antarctica in 2010. It’s an extreme running location in other ways too, with an average altitude of about 7,000ft, the South Pole situated at almost 10,000ft.
Tobin’s coach Feidhlim Kelly also travelled the long way down for the end, running it too, finishing sixth overall in 4:20:58. There were just over 60 entrants across the marathon and half-marathon races, the American Becca Pizzi first home in the women’s marathon race in 4:24:15. In all, 46 men completed the marathon distance, plus 11 in the women’s marathon event.
Recognised by Guinness World Records as the southernmost marathon on earth, Tobin’s 2:53:33 of Ireland also bettered the Antarctic Ice Marathon record of 2:55:54, set by American ultra-marathon runner Mike Wardian during the World Marathon Challenge in 2017.
Affectionately known as The Irish Hammer, Tobin’s made no mistake about his winning effort either, as he passed through the halfway point in 1:23, already well clear of the chasing pack. Irish champion on the track over 1,500m and 10,000m in the past, with a 3:57.00 mile also to his name, his time certainly augers well for the more standard roads.
The race takes place at Union Glacier, near the Ellsworth Mountains and just a few hundred miles from the South Pole. It’s only accessible by air and involves a four-and-a-half hour flight from Punta Arenas in Chile.
The wheeled IL-76 aircraft lands on a naturally occurring ice runway on the Union Glacier, and from there the runners travel another five miles to the race camp, staying overnight in tents.
Last year, a major storm hit the race location on the date the race was originally scheduled, making it impossible for competitors to fly in; it eventually got under way three days later than scheduled.
Tobin in not the first Irish winner: in 2016, Galway runner Gary Thornton was also the first man home, his time on that occasion 3:37:13. The event is also recognised by the Association of International Marathons and Distances Races.
Donovan, the race director, is well familiar with the area: in 201, he completed the first 100-mile run within the Antarctic Circle (to coincide with the 100-year anniversary of man reaching the South Pole, the Norwegian-led expedition of Roald Amundsen in 1911) and in 2012 he set a record for running marathons on all seven continents when completing the World Marathon Challenge in four days, 22 hours and three minutes.