Running 90 km at 90 degrees south: For this Alaskan at the South Pole, the cold was “deeply familiar”
Craig Updegrove is 37 and raised in Bethel. He was a member of the high school‘s cross-country team there and has a running history that he believes might spark some homeland pride and inspire the current generation of warriors.
It is the story of a man close to the top of the world who works at the end of the world, where he has crossed all the longitudinal lines of the world eight times. In less than 14 hours.
Updegrove ran his third marathon at the South Pole Research Center in January, but this time he didn’t stop after 42.2 miles. He continued until he ran 90 kilometers at 90 degrees south, the southernmost point on earth.
An editor for the Antarctic Sun said the online newspaper does not keep a record of continental flights, but the South Pole Telescope said in one tweet that the 90 km from Updegrove was âdefinitely an outdoor record run for the South Poleâ.
With Updegrove spending most of his life in subarctic Alaska, polar conditions didn’t seem so bad during his 56-mile run.
At the start it was minus 17 with a little wind. By the time it ended 13 hours, 24 minutes and 5 seconds later, the wind had increased to a wind chill temperature of minus 35.
“I would run to school at similar temperatures so the conditions had a deeply familiar prick,” he said in a recent email conversation.
Updegrove is a contract worker at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, a US research center that annually hosts a marathon for workers stationed there.
This year’s race was on January 10th – midsummer at the South Pole and a time of constant daylight, but the sun never rises high in the sky. It hovered about 22 degrees above the horizon on race day, Updegrove said.
“It was nice to notice that my shadow moved around me like a sundial during the day,” he said.
The race begins and ends at the ceremonial South Pole, a location marked by the flags of the 12 nations that signed the Antarctic Treaty in 1959. It runs on a 6.55-mile loop orbiting the geographic South Pole, where all of the world’s longitudes meet.
âI didn’t want to break any records that morning,â said Updegrove. âI knew I wasn’t going to be the fastest runner at 37, so aiming for first place wasn’t realistic. I was just hoping to try an ultra run of 32.75 miles to do something different from the last two South Pole marathons I ran. “
Four laps is a marathon and five is the ultra run Updegrove had in mind, but after five trips around the globe, the man who finished 62nd at Alaska’s Class 1-2-3A State Cross Country Championships was ready for more.
“So I ran around the world eight times and then covered the last few miles (running) back and forth between the Ceremonial Pole and the South Pole Telescope,” he said.
Updegrove ran the first 26.2 miles in 5:30:32, which earned him second place in the marathon, and completed 52.4 miles – a double marathon distance – in 12:29:42. That put him a little over 3 miles from 50 miles, and it took him almost an hour to mix the last 3.6 miles.
He ran 10 minute miles at the start of the race and 18 minute miles at the end. End time: 13:24:05.
“The worst part of the race was when my 13-year-old iPod nano froze on lap three,” he said. âFortunately, I was able to hand it over to a volunteer who took it in and strapped two hand warmers to it. I picked it up at the next pass and was able to make music out of it for another 7 hours. “
Updegrove’s run began at the end of 16 months at the South Pole, where he worked as a heavy machinery operator and cargo specialist at Scott Amundsen Station. He had spent five summers previously in Antarctica, two at Scott Amundsen Station and three at McMurdo Station, another US research center about 1,000 miles north of the South Pole.
He returned to the South Pole for another stay this month.
Updegrove said he didn’t run much after graduating from Bethel High School. He attended art school and settled in Anchorage, where he worked as a sculptor, freelance graphic artist and art director for about a dozen years.
“Everything changed when I had a hit-and-run accident,” he said. “The injury wasn’t too big, but it put me in bed for about a week and the residual pain stayed with me for months along with the nagging thought, ‘What if it was worse?’
“I started obsessing about traveling and changing my life.”
In 2015 he applied for a job in Antarctica, got it and has been going there ever since.
When Updegrove is âoff the ice,â he spends his time spending the rest of the world hiking, biking, and doing seasonal jobs. He has hiked the Himalayas, New Zealand and the Utah desert, and last week he âsuffered in the heatâ in the Pacific Northwest preparing to return to Antarctica.
“I’m looking forward to the freezing temperatures,” he said.
Antarctica is the coldest place on earth. Updegrove said he organized a 10km race on the September equinox last year, the only day there is a sunrise at the South Pole. It was minus 77, he said, “but the lengthy sunrise was breathtaking after a winter of darkness and made the suffering from the biting cold worth it.”
There is nearly 2 miles of ice under Amundsen-Scott Station, giving it an altitude of 9,301 feet, Updegrove said, and low air pressure increases physiological altitude an additional 1,000 to 2,000 feet day-to-day.
“I lived at this altitude for almost 16 months increasing my (oxygen) saturation from 92% to 94%,” he said.
Updegrove wore Category 4 glacier glasses for his 90km to protect himself from the sun and light snow that can be brutal to the eyes. He used exercise tape to cover the parts of his face that were most exposed to the sun and cold and put sunscreen on all over and still had a sunburned nose.
The 90K was the byproduct of 16 consecutive months at the South Pole. Before 2020-21, Updegrove had only spent the summers there. He got through his first long, dark, cold winter by spending entire Sundays in the gym, running, cycling, and rowing.
“There was a hamster-in-a-cage effect that hit me pretty hard in the middle of winter,” he said. âThe South Pole is one of the most remote and coldest places on earth in winter, there are no flights in the winter months, so I thought I might as well spin the wheels in the gym as I wouldn’t be going anywhere anytime soon.
âI burn myself through a TV series or a pile of films during a whole day. The entire first season of Stranger Things got me through my first ultra-treadmill run of 32 miles. A couple of us hosted a Walk to Mordor event where we walked / pedaled / rowed all three extended Director’s Cut versions of The Lord of the Rings trilogy in a single day. I would not recommend this. “
Those who stay through the winter face physical challenges to keep one another active, he said. There’s the Race to McMurdo (835 miles on a treadmill that represents the distance from the South Pole to McMurdo), the Lift to McMurdo (the total weight brought to the South Pole by LC-130 cargo planes last summer, or 1,746,771 Lb). , and the Everest Beer Can Challenge.
“The beer can is what we call the large cylindrical steel shell that descends 5 floors from the elevated station to the snow surface that is connected to several buried vaulted warehouses,” said Updegrove. “I worked in these warehouses all winter and walked up and down these stairs often enough to climb Everest twice without any problems.”
It all added up to 90 kilometers at 90 degrees south.
Updegrove has never run a marathon outside of Antarctica, and he doesn’t envision a northern version of his accomplishment. Running at the North Pole would be great, he said, but he doesn’t think he’ll ever have the money or the job opportunities to make it happen.
“I ate at a great Asian buffet restaurant in North Pole, Alaska once,” he said. “That’s probably the next thing I’ll accomplish.”