Tuesday, January 26, 2016

On to Siberia

Every now and again, you’ve got to s***-can the straight and narrow, say lah-de-dah to your worldly responsibilities and do something hare-brained, off kilter  and fun.


Two years ago, I traveled halfway around the world to take part in Transvulcania, a 50-mile race in the Canary Islands. It reduced me to tears, left my feet swollen to the size of footballs, and provided me with the incomparable experience of running up and over a volcano with a bunch of crazy Spaniards. Last year, I flew to Yellowknife in Northern Canada to trot along 30 miles of ungroomed trails on snowshoes. Beat to death, I quit two-thirds of the way through but I’ll never forget the experience of standing in the middle of a frozen lake without another living soul in sight.

You really ought to try it.

This year, I’m headed in a new direction. East. About as far east as one can go…to Siberia. My aim is to take part in the Baikal Ice Marathon, a running event that holds the distinction of not being held on land. Rather, we runners will scamper 26.2 miles across a veneer of black ice covering Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest body of fresh water.

Now in its 12th year, the Baikal Ice Marathon attracts a hundred or so runners from around the world and regularly turns up on lists of the world’s toughest long distance runs. It sounds challenging, but I’m not convinced. I suspect such lists are compiled by interns at fitness magazines who run 10Ks and couldn’t find Irkutsk on a map. (It’s due north of Ulaanbaatar.) The course is arrow straight and so flat—varying no more than two feet along its full extent—they say you can just about see the finish line from the start. By that measure, it should be a piece of cake.

“Siberia” conjures images of the gulag and bearded, thinly dressed political prisoners shivering in temperatures of minus 40. It won’t be anything like that for we runners. We’ll spend most of our time in a cozy hotel sipping the local vodka. During the race, we’ll be watched over by rescue teams on hovercraft and handed hot drinks by friendly commissars manning aid stations every five miles or so.

It may be cold…but I can tell you from experience that cold is a manageable commodity. Running gear these days is made from miracle fabrics that keep you toasty in all but the most extreme temperatures. Admittedly, your comfort could be impacted by wind, which not only sharpens the cold, but impedes progress. Surface conditions could also complicate the run. If it’s unseasonably warm, say 20F, snow softens. It’s like running in sand. If it’s warmer still, I could discover just how deep Lake Baikal is.

Still not convinced?

I’m reminded of something Robert Pollheimer, the excellent race director of the Yukon Artic Ultra, a 430-mile, 13-day race in Canada’s upper limits, wrote on his website. He noted that people always  ask him why anyone would attempt such a feat. His response was simple: “If you could do it, why wouldn’t you?”

I get it.

There will come a time when I can’t travel to outlandish places to run marathons. So, I’ve got to do it now. One day, when I’m lying on a gurney in a nursing home, watching reruns of Jeopardy and eating a diet of strained peas, I’ll reflect on my Siberian adventure and think, “Man, that was effing cold!”


  1. Rock on, Keith! I love it. Will you wear nanospikes over your shoes to manage the black ice?

    1. Salomon Spikecross...with spikes built into the lugs.