Fancy running across the oldest, deepest and most awesome lake in the world that holds over 20% of global surface freshwaters? Check. Fancy running across a World Heritage Site? Check. Fancy running across a terrain that switches between slippery ice and deep snow, whilst looking out for huge cracks in the ice along the route? Check. Fancy running in one of the most remote regions of the planet, far from any coastline, which has over 2000 earthquake tremors every year? Check. Fancy running 42 km in temperatures so cold that your sweat and mucous in your nose freezes? Check. If all these appeal to you, and want an adventure of a lifetime, then you should consider running the Baikal Ice Marathon (BIM).
BIM started 9 years ago and is one of the world’s most challenging races. As readers of this blog will know, Lake Baikal is a unique freshwater ecosystem, and this race was first organized back in 2004 to highlight the natural beauty of the lake and to promote preservation of its pure water.
BIM is never advertised and numbers of participants are relatively small; on 3rd March 2013 141 runners from 18 countries participated. It has been one of my greatest privileges therefore to have run the race this year, just one day before the start of our research project investigating human and climatic impacts on the lake.
On Saturday 2nd March competitors arrived at the tiny fishing village of Listvyanka on the northern shore of Baikal. We were put up in various hotels and hostels, each providing huge pasta meals for us maximise our carbohydrate reserves.
15 people stayed my hotel from Spain, China, Japan, Russia, Czech Republic, the USA and the UK, and it was really interesting hearing about how everyone else heard about BIM and their excitment about doing the race. Sunday was an early start. I was up 4 hours before the race was due to start, part nerves, but also I was keen to get outside to try my super spiked iceBugs, especially made for running on ice.
Later In the morning we were bussed down to the edge of frozen Baikal to the start line. Anxiety was running quite high by this time. The course director, Alexei Nikiforov, told us that running conditions were actually quite treacherous [video]. Unusually, the first 12 km or so was dominated by clear, glassy ice, which without spikes, would make running very difficult indeed. And I haven’t even mentioned yet the bitingly cold temperatures of -20 °C.
At the start of the race everyone has to give a salutation to the Baikal god Burkhan. In previous years this was done with a shot of vodka; for good or for bad this year we were given milk, which in retrospect was probably a good thing!
Now, I’m not a terribly fast runner, and I was unsure about how to run in spikes on glass ice, so I kept to the back of the field and found my own pace. Also, I had torn a calf muscle earlier in January, so training had been minimal, and I decided to make have several sequential goals. The first was just to participate in the race, and I have George Swann to thank for reinforcing that participating was a good idea. Second, I wanted to get to the half-way stage, where I knew several runners had only to complete the half-marathon. Third, if I did decide to carry on running, I would need to do so in under 6 hours – after that time runners are unceremoniously picked up along the way as the race officially closes.
At the start of the race you could see the Khamer Daban mountain range on the opposite shore of the lake. And this didn’t change for the full 42km. I was told that this one view throughout would make this race psychologically very difficult. We were also told that the cold would catch in our lungs, the sweat would freeze on our hair, and that running on snow and ice would be extremely difficult. Apart from the sweat freezing, which was true, I loved the view in front of me, I loved running in the cold, and running on the ice meant that I had to concentrate throughout. All these made this marathon one of the best experiences I have ever had.
I had planned on live tweeting the race, but as soon as I got a 3G signal I was charged £20! Instead I made some videos of some of the more unusual observations. For example, not everywhere was the ice glass-black. In some regions it formed pancake ice [video].
Perhaps the biggest shock came at about mile 20, when a loud, deep, booming sound resonated throughout the lake [video], and I’m sure I felt the ice shake beneath my feet. I captured my astonishment just after this happened, and put it down to a new ice crack opening up near by (video). This was enough to make me slightly concerned for my safety. However, I was to learn at the end of the race that this was in fact an earthquake that shook the Rift Valley, and opened up one of the large cracks in the ice, causing large amounts of water to gush up onto the surface. As well as being quite exhilarating, it meant that a new crossing route had to be found for many of the competitors returning from the finish line, which delayed their journey by over 3 hours.
At the half way sections of the race, those running the half-marathon came to their destination, with a welcome of hot sweet teas, food snacks, and the only loo on the course! This point actually marked a change in the condition of the course, which now had a snow covered surface [video].
So like the hare and tortoise, my slow steady pace paid off. I finished the course in 4h 31mins, way beyond my expectations, and to be honest I wasn’t pushing myself that much, deciding to enjoy the experience, take videos etc! I also ended up being the fastest Brit (out of 21), which was rather surprising to say the least.
Finally, would I do it again? Absolutely. Would I encourage anyone else to do it? Definitely. Maybe one or two of the Nottingham team can be persuaded for next year.