Ice marathon across a frozen Rus­sian lake tests run­ners’ limit in ex­treme con­di­tions

The Buffalo News - - WORLD NEWS - By Neil MacFarquhar

LAKE BAIKAL, Rus­sia – The ice rum­bled and then shook un­der­foot. No one had warned Veronique Messina about that.

Messina, a French speech ther­a­pist work­ing in Cam­bo­dia, came to Lake Baikal in dis­tant Siberia to run a marathon across its frozen sur­face. She ven­tured onto the ice for her first trial run just a day be­fore the race.

“I am afraid of wa­ter to be­gin with, and you can see that you are run­ning on wa­ter,” she said.

The booms and tremors rip­pling across the ice as it shifts, some­times called the “Baikal Sym­phony,” proved an even worse sur­prise.

“It was hor­ri­ble,” said Messina, 40. “The ice was shak­ing. I was shak­ing. Each time it cracked, I think I ran twice as fast.”

Marathon run­ners of­ten use races to ex­plore the world, and ev­ery March the Baikal Ice Marathon at­tracts a small group to the lake, a UNESCO World Her­itage Site, both for its ex­otic, ethe­real beauty and the un­pre­dictable, gru­el­ing con­di­tions. Edged by dis­tant snow-capped moun­tains, the win­ter lake is a vast plain of white snow in­ter­rupted by ex­tended swaths of dark blue ice swept clear by the wind.

Mi­cro­cli­mates gen­er­ate tem­pests that sab­o­tage weather fore­casts. “Science can­not help us,” said Alek­sey P. Nik­i­forov, 58, the charm­ing, vol­u­ble, oc­ca­sion­ally can­tan­ker­ous founder of the race, held this year on March 2.

Many run­ners said test­ing their lim­its drew them to Baikal, the Earth’s largest, deep­est body of fresh wa­ter, some 2,700 miles east of Moscow.

“My 30th birth­day is later this month so I wanted to do some­thing crazy,” said Sab­rina Kwong, a Hong Kong banker, adding ner­vously, “I signed up be­fore think­ing how ex­treme it would be.”

The ice and the weather en­sure that no two races are iden­ti­cal.

“Baikal pre­pares new sur­prises, es­pe­cially for you run­ners, ev­ery time,” Nik­i­forov said dur­ing a brief­ing the night be­fore this year’s race. “That makes it more in­ter­est­ing,” he added, pro­vok­ing ner­vous laugh­ter.

Asked in 2005 to or­ga­nize a marathon skirt­ing the lake, Nik­i­forov, who owns a small Siberian tourism com­pany, thought: “Why not across it?”

The Baikalsky Na­ture Re­serve on the east­ern shore sits 23.2 miles from Listvyanka, the main tourist vil­lage on the western side, 3 miles short of a marathon’s of­fi­cial 26.2 miles. To add them, the headache is iden­ti­fy­ing a smooth, me­an­der­ing path de­void of cracks or im­pass­able berms of bro­ken ice. Nik­i­forov scouts the ice re­peat­edly for weeks be­fore the race. He tests the thick­ness with a trusty Soviet hand drill; 17 inches can sup­port a tank.

This year the ice was about 27 inches thick. Thun­der­ing like dis­tant can­non fire, ran­dom cracks cleave open and slam shut in the frozen, float­ing crust.

Cracks pre­sent more of a dan­ger of twist­ing an an­kle than fall­ing through, al­though one year such a large hole opened that run­ners avoided the wa­ter by scram­bling across three small, parked hover­craft.

Last year, a fierce, glacial wind blew up from nowhere, re­duc­ing vis­i­bil­ity to a few yards. Disori­ented run­ners stum­bled off the route marked by short red flags. Some got frost­bite.

Nik­i­forov re­luc­tantly can­celed the race for the first time and evac­u­ated every­one.

Dur­ing the brief­ing, Nik­i­forov ca­su­ally men­tioned that he had just dis­cov­ered a new crack. One anx­ious ques­tion: “Can you ex­plain a lit­tle more about the crack – how wide is it?”

“It might close, it might get wider, we don’t know,” he re­sponded, adding that boards could be laid over the 11inch frac­ture if needed.

Race day started with a 55-minute ride on 10 small hover­craft across the lake to the start­ing point. This year, 97 men and 30 women par­tic­i­pated from 23 coun­tries, with a quar­ter of the rac­ers from Rus­sia. Of the to­tal, 24 peo­ple ran a half marathon. Nik­i­forov keeps the race small, not least so he can evac­u­ate every­body if nec­es­sary.

The race motto is “Clean Wa­ter Preser­va­tion Run,” but the com­pe­ti­tion is less an ac­tive en­vi­ron­men­tal ef­fort than an at­tempt to raise con­scious­ness about pro­tect­ing the miledeep lake. It holds about 20 per­cent of the fresh sur­face wa­ter on Earth.

Thick clouds threat­ened snow as the run­ners de­parted in a pack. Within an hour, they had spread out over 3 miles, lit­tle black dots on an all-white planet where the snowy lake merged with the over­cast sky.

Then the sun emerged and at 26 de­grees Fahren­heit, balmy for Siberia in March, one Rus­sian run­ner stripped to just shorts. Spot­ting him, Nik­i­forov leapt from his hover­craft.

“You will ei­ther lose your tes­ti­cles on your own or we will help you!” he bel­lowed in Rus­sian, us­ing a more earthy term and threat­en­ing ex­pul­sion if the man did not dress. “The rules have to be tough, this is Baikal,” he mut­tered.

The rec­om­mended wardrobe in­cluded a bala­clava; face tape; gog­gles or glasses; a light, wind­proof jacket and pants; two lay­ers of thin ther­mal un­der­wear and heavy gloves. Snapon cram­pons or run­ning shoes with spikes were also crit­i­cal.

Messina set off with some trep­i­da­tion. Fret­ting about the crack, she de­cided to stick with other run­ners. She soon found her­self solo, how­ever, eye­balling the thick white veins in the ice and won­der­ing where to leap if one burst open.

“It was also beau­ti­ful,” she said, “You are alone on Baikal, it is your race, you are alone with your­self.”

The race ended with lit­tle fan­fare. Tourists crowd­ing the ice mostly ig­nored the run­ners, who ma­neu­vered to the fin­ish line past ob­sta­cles like ice skaters, dog sleds and tourists snap­ping self­ies.

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