'It Was a Great Race!'
By Rich McManus
John Fahner-Vihtelic, the NIH'er profiled in the last issue of the NIH Record who once survived 16 days alone following a car crash in the woods of Washington State, recently returned from his latest encounter with extremity: he not only ran in the second, and last, Antarctica Marathon last month, but also set a personal best time in the event -- 5 hours and 5 minutes.
"That's 10 minutes better than my first marathon (the Marine Corps, in 1994)," he exulted. The car crash, which occurred 21 years ago near Mt. St. Helens, left him an amputee. He lost his left leg below the midshin on Oct. 1, 1976, following the accident, in which his left foot was pinned by a pine root to the dashboard of his upside-down station wagon. A prosthetic leg enables him to pursue a range of athletic events including footraces and triathlons.
About 100 athletes participated in the Antarctica Marathon. Fahner-Vihtelic was sponsored by World Team Sports, a Charlotte, N.C.-based organization dedicated to the value of athletics and human determination; the letters T.E.A.M. stand for "the exceptional athlete matters." The first marathon near the South Pole was held in 1995. The 1997 version did not draw enough runners to justify continuation of the event, which involves transporting participants by boat from Tierra del Fuego to King George Island, the largest of the Shetland Islands just off the Antarctic Peninsula.
Temperatures were around freezing, with sustained winds of 40 mph and blowing snow, when Fahner-Vihtelic began the 26.2-mile race.
"It was cold -- no doubt about it," he said, "but you just run and you stay warm. It's getting toward the end of summer down there. Winter really sets in at the end of March."
The race course meandered along Matthews Bay through research stations belonging to Russia, Uruguay, Chile, Argentina and China. Call it a mini-United Nations course. It also included a mile run up the Collins Glacier.
"We were running through dirt, mud, rock, snow and ice for a surface," says Fahner-Vihtelic, 48, who is a licensing specialist and patent advisor with NIH's Office of Technology Transfer. "There were a lot of streams from glacial runoff. You'd be running for awhile on dry dirt, then there would be a mile of mud."
The event itinerary provided the following caveat, printed in tiny type at the bottom of a page:
"Warning!...Antarctica presents many everchanging obstacles to overcome in order to conduct an event safely including icebergs, glaciers, snow, crevasses, rain, low temperatures, mountains, streams, katabatic winds [intense downdrafts of air], dive bombing skuas [large members of the gull family], mud and rocks. Each runner should understand that they (sic) must overcome or avoid most if not all of these elements while attempting to finish their (sic) race."
Most if not all. Fahner-Vihtelic encountered only one real slow-up, and it hadn't been anticipated by race officials: "At about 16 to 20 miles, my (prosthetic) limb got loose and slowed me down. I'm sure I would have broken 5 hours had it not happened."
While passing through the Russian research center, site of the start and finish lines, Fahner-Vihtelic paused to add an extra prosthetic sock, which tightens up the limb, before running the last 6 miles of the race.
"The skuas were bothersome," he relates. "They did not like us in their area." He would encounter small clusters of the birds along the ground while running. As he approached, they took wing, but rather than flying away they tended to hover threateningly over his head.
"Down in Antarctica, the rule is to leave nature totally undisturbed," he said. "You can't pick up a stone or leave one behind where there wasn't one before. We sometimes had to wait 20 or 30 seconds, or sometimes a minute for fur seals to get off the course. They can be very aggressive."
Fahner-Vihtelic encountered seals twice, and used the ecologically inoffensive method of clapping loudly to rout the creatures.
The winning time in the race was 2:30, accomplished by Scott Dvorak, a professional runner sponsored by Reebok who is also director of public affairs for World Team Sports. Normally able to finish marathons in about 2:15, he was slowed just 15 minutes by all the White Continent could hurl his way.
Fahner-Vihtelic estimates he placed about 70th in the race. Little did he guess that, in exiting Antarctica, his true marathon had just begun: "The flight home was as bad as the marathon," he said. Some 32 consecutive hours of flights and layovers left him utterly spent. "When I got to Metro Center (on the subway ride home) the whole place was spinning. I probably should not have been alone in there."
Once home he remained in training -- about 30 to 35 miles of running per week -- for a marathon Mar. 9 along an old rail bed connecting Annapolis and Baltimore. He also expects to compete with WTS in the Cherry Blossom 10-Miler at Hains Point in April, and at the Spring Lake 5-Miler in New Jersey later in the spring. He also plans to participate in a number of triathlons this year.
Nor is the press finished with him. The ex-Green Beret medic, whose 1976 crash survival story went worldwide over the wires (a brother in the Peace Corps learned of the ordeal while serving in the Marshall Islands) and whose TV appearances have included the Today Show, To Tell the Truth, P.M. Magazine, and The Gary Collins Show, gave interviews about his Antarctica experience to Time magazine, Sports Illustrated, GQ, the New York Times and Washington Post.
What did he tell them all? "It was a great race! I enjoyed it!"
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