Racing, Alone, On The Frozen Baikal

Thomas Witten

The morning after the midnight thunderstorm we had a few nights ago a friend who recently moved to Moscow asked with sincere panic-stricken eyes: “Is this it!? Is winter starting? Shall I go out to buy a thick winter coat?” I responded with a restrained giggle and somehow managed to suppress an urge to burst out laughing. I went on to explain that we’ve got a while to go still but recommended to soak up as much of the outside terrace atmosphere as possible before the sun goes into hibernation. “There’s still the mythical Indian Summer to look forward to after a bout of cold weather before winter really starts in November” I added (I still don’t know what ‘Indian Summer’ is all about).

This conversation got me thinking though. The intrigue with Russia’s long cold dark winters is usually on the top of the list when someone finds out I live in Russia – especially people from my neck of the woods where it very rarely snows. We South Africans regard single digit temperatures with absolute dread. The notion of a hyphen before the digit lies far outside our frame of reference. But long and grey and bitingly cold as Russian winters may be, I am always amazed at how people from this part of the world embrace the winter. What I find intriguing though is the contradiction with a nation which simultaneously seems to both fear and love the cold. Young children can’t drink cold water, but ice-cream stands pop up in every park in the white winter months; opening windows and catching a draft means you’ll die and yet hundreds are out in pushchairs while pulling gleeful children behind on doughnut sleds. Shortly after the first snow has settled skiing enthusiasts don slick and shiny ski suits and take to the forest.

Me – I’m a runner, and I like ‘Ultras’. I find running in the snow exhilarating and come winter I’m out in Moscow’s forests enjoying the thrill of light snowflakes half suspended in the air or running into an icy blizzard. I had the privilege of participating in one of Russia’s toughest, if not craziest, events, running ‘on the world’s only marathon ice course laid between two opposite shores of the planet’s deepest lake!’: The Baikal Ice Marathon. Exactly as it says on the box: We started on the shore of one end of Lake Baikal and ran 42.2km in -25 degrees Celsius into icy winds on the frozen lake and ended on the opposite bank several hours later. It was tough. Unpleasant. I’d rather run a 100km ‘Ultra’ in warm weather every other day than run Baikal again. But what an amazing experience! Unless you’re an elite athlete firing on all fours at the front with the lead pack marathons are actually wonderful social events with people chatting all around you on the run and spectators cheering you on your way. Baikal was very different. I didn’t anticipate that running it would be so isolating. The 160 odd runners were spread out over many kilometres and did not have any contact with each other. I was completely wrapped up, buffered from the outside world, while constantly trying to manage my body heat. The overwhelming feeling, though, was that I was running alone. A man on snowmobile or a hovercraft passing by checking up to see if everyone was OK, my only source of company. The occasional soviet tank passing by was surprisingly reassuring. “If that heavy thing can drive on the ice then I’m probably not in any danger of slipping under the ice!” I thought.The hardest part, however, was the lack of perception of distance. Not long into the race everything around you as far as the eye could see was white with no way of telling how near or far anything was, with small red flags guiding your path dotted out every few hundred metres. I remember thinking at the time that this must be what it would feel like if the white after-death experience realm could be believed. Hopefully warmer. 25km in, something finally revealed itself in the distance – a few mountain tops which just wouldn’t get closer – lack of depth perception yet again. And then with 7 or so K’s to go the other side of the bank started becoming visible. Again, so close and yet so very far; it stood there taunting. And then it was over. A shot of vodka has never tasted so good.

I wouldn’t recommend Baikal to the faint of heart but thought I should perhaps suggest that my friend start shopping for a fancy ski kit instead and while the weather is good, build up a level of fitness to enjoy what Moscow has to offer in the winter. But then again you only live once.

Fellow ‘Ultra’ runners.

Thomas Witten is a reception teacher (early years – ages 4 – 5) at Brookes School, Moscow

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