Tales of vodka, Bambi & grim determination at the Baikal Ice Marathon

It’s often been a desire/need/craving of mine to go to far-flung places where very few people live – usually in extremely cold corners of the world – and do something silly for charity. This year has been no exception.

In March, I completed a marathon. But it wasn’t a normal marathon, it was an ice marathon over the deepest, largest and coldest lake in the world – Lake Baikal in Siberia. A friend of mine forwarded me a link to it a while ago and said this looks like the one of those bonkers things that you could do. But this time, with my usual running partner not up to it and a stand-in buddy going down with knee injuries, it became me versus Siberia – alone!

It’s 9 time zones away from the UK and to say it’s remote is the understatement of a lifetime. The place is 60km from the town of Irkutsk and after the initial briefing saying that the wind was very strong and that the ice route was being moved, we sat down for a meal of pasta

Getting chilly!

Getting chilly!

(what else) the night before and went to our remarkably retro-chic accommodation for the night. I say chic. It was kind of Soviet chic – lots of exposed wires and plumbing combined with a significant amount of nylon bedding which made you arc out like a roman candle whenever you got near it.

After a fretful night’s sleep where, in a rather Homer Simpson-esque way, I was both too hot alternating with freezing cold (the radiator wouldn’t turn off but as soon as you opened the door to cool it down the -30˚ wind came in and within 12 seconds you were freezing), we woke up to a breakfast of rice and all I can think of is cabbage combined with coffee! Yum! We boarded the buses and headed down to the lake shore where we were going to start the run. There were 4 buses ferrying the 140 runners down to the shore and, arriving first, we got off and within 3 minutes realised this was a very silly move. The other buses were coming later and we quickly realized we would quite literally freeze to death if we stood out there in our 2 layers of leggings, 3 layers of tops and bobbly hats. It was -20˚ something and you don’t stand round in that!

This is one of the few marathons in the world where a shot of vodka is an obligation before you set off but, on the spurious pretext that it set the lake gods free to look after you, we all took a nip. A mumbling voice then drifted over from a crackly megaphone and we noticed some people started running. This was a surprise to the small British contingent who were still merrily quaffing away vodka – and was slowly followed by a dawning realization that the marathon had actually started! So we braced ourselves, took a deep breath – then, mostly, fell over.

On the way - lake Baikal ice marathon

Spot the flat-footed Yorkshireman!

The one thing you quickly realise about running across a frozen lake is that it’s very icy (I know, shouldn’t really have been a surprise right?) and despite the fact we were given hints what to wear on your feet, nothing prepares you for running across what is effectively a really bumpy skating rink at -20˚. There were lots of people doing freestyle Bambi impressions and that, combined with the regular sound of moving and cracking ice (which sent most of the Japanese contingent to the floor as their earthquake preparation kicked in), made for a tentative start I think it’s fair to say.

But I soon got into my stride… not the type of stride you’d imagine most marathon runners would class as anything like a running gait; it was more of a “Happy Feet” shuffle, trying to keep your feet as close to the ground as possible searching for grip so when you push back you don’t slip back for a third of your stride. I persevered with this, hoping that the really slippy stuff would finish soon – and after around about 10 kilometres, the surface changed. “Yippee” I thought, and then realised it had changed into sort of icy cobbles that looked like they’d been carefully designed specifically to break ankles. This was the part of the lake where the different ice flows converged, bashing into each other then re-freezing into some kind of cobble-come-crazy paving, which meant that not only were you now slipping, but you were risking turning an ankle (or worse) because every footstep had a unique and crazy slope on it.

And so we persevered through this nonsense, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. The natives who, without exception, spoke very little English, had just up and buggered off into the distance because they’d had plenty of practice of this kind of fell running on ice.

Running the lake baikal ice marathon

1 hour into the race…

Unfortunately we didn’t. It was left to young Dan and me to form a strong partnership where he, being a professional endurance cyclist for Raleigh, and me, being bloody minded, northern, fat, overweight bloke worked a way of keeping our relative inexperience and ineptness going across a white wilderness which never seemed to move. Because there are no references on a lake covered in ice and snow against a background of white skies and white landscape, you seem to just keep running but going nowhere – like a cartoon character where the background keeps spooling around and you’re in the same place again. Now, I’d

Running the lake baikal ice marathon

2 hours into the race…

experienced this mental aberration in Antarctica before and so was able to help Dan mentally whilst he, not having physically trained for a run at all i.e. nothing (i.e. not even done a run before this marathon!) but being generally hyper-fit, was happy to keep up with my remarkably slow pace. It was a marriage made in heaven. Both of us laughing quite a lot at the ludicrous situation we found ourselves in.

We reached the halfway point not quite realising how few people were carrying on beyond a half marathon. Of the 140 people who started, it

Running the lake baikal ice marathon

3 hours into the race… (you get the picture :-)

appeared about a hundred were running to this halfway house then being taken back to the start by hovercraft to go and have a good sit down and some beers. Slightly alarmed and massively envious, us stoic few carried on trotting off into the white nothingness to do the same again…

No matter. Grimly determined, Dan and myself soon picked up a pace from a kind of, well, from a slow trot to a slower trot and then eventually realised we were only just marginally faster than walking. But sod it! We were over halfway there, and we occupied ourselves by playing a cat and mouse game at the feeding stations with 2 Japanese gentlemen who would, in the best tortoise and hare tradition, tear past us and then stop for some sustenance allowing us to gradually catch up, overtake them for them to tear past again before the next feeding station. Kept us occupied anyhow!

The cut-off time for the race was 6 hours, after which you wouldn’t have received your amazingly cheap looking medal and certificate so this, as one would imagine, spurred a high-achieving/needy person like me on. Dan and myself ran across the line together arms aloft at 5 hours, 55 and 15 seconds to collapse on the ground in joy, relief, pain and exhaustion. The first person to ‘congratulate’ us (of the very few people that were there at all), was this rather austere looking lady in significant amounts of fur coatage who proceeded to give us a bollocking for collapsing to the ground on the finish line. I looked around to see the trampling hordes of people that must be behind me making me in imminent danger of causing a catastrophic pile-up – peering into the distance (admittedly my long-distance sight isn’t great) to see not a speck. Still, I really couldn’t be bothered to argue so we tottered into the Russian army tent that was to be our sanctuary until we too got picked up by a hovercraft and repatriated to terra firma.

Lake Baikal ice marathon

Everyone’s a winner!

Unfortunately, and in the best Russian traditions of not being able to organise piss-ups in breweries, there was no hovercraft and we had to wait in the cold in the tent with only lukewarm tea and nuts to keep us company until, eventually, one turned up. Now, you think of hovercrafts and you think of high tech instruments effortlessly whisking you across undulating terrain at high speed. This however, was a Russian hovercraft. And Russian hovercrafts display a distinct lack of effortlessness or the ability to whisk.

What Russian hovercrafts have the uncanny knack of doing, is reminding you of your mate Adrian’s Dad’s 1970’s Mark 2 Cortina with a wonderfully orangey/brown flock interior of crushed velour, rudimentary suspension plus huge amounts of noise. Not only that, it didn’t have enough seats so poor old Dan, being one of the last ones in, had the pleasure of laying on the floor for the duration of the trip back which, having seen hovercrafts ferrying people back before, we reasonably expected we would be about 10 or 15 minutes. Oh no. It took the best part of an hour including stopping at a break in the ice for us to climb over on wooden trestles to get into a mini van driven by somebody who looked like one of Sly Stallone’s Soviet pugilist opponents from the Rocky movies. He then proceeded to drive at alarmingly high speeds back to the shore line with absolutely no control whatsoever over steering, breaking or which way round the minivan was aiming. I got to the other side and, in a rather papalesque exhibition of contrition, sank to my knees – on two counts. One, because I was delighted to have hit terra ferma without running into it, rolling over it or otherwise reuniting with it in a ball of flames. And secondly, having sat in a very small hovercraft for the best part of an hour, my quads had gone into cramp!

Eventually, we got back to the hotel and had a fantastic time with my Russian friends and acquaintances. We celebrated with a healthy dose of vodkas – flavoured and unflavoured – and I retired to bed clutching my certificate of endeavour and with medal draped round my neck to prove that, once again, I had been a silly arse. But at least I had been a successful silly arse!

We raised a stack of cash for the Samaritans too – where all donations continue to be very welcome by clicking this link.

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