I first heard about the Baikal Ice Marathon when I was living in Moscow. It sounded insane.
I live in London now, but for 9 years I used to lived in Moscow. Today, I was flying back to Moscow. Living in London is okay. It’s predictable, routine, and normal. Londoners suppress their emotions, but get angry if they think you are filming them on their morning commute.
Time to escape the predictable, the routine, and the normal. It was time to get weird.
I was traveling back to Russia for a race: The Baikal Ice Marathon in Siberia. The full marathon course was across the frozen surface of Lake Baikal, the biggest lake in Russia.
There are no direct flights to Siberia from London, so first I flew to Moscow.
Three and a half hours later, I was back in Russia.
8 Hours in Moscow
I had an eight hour layover before my flight to Siberia. Spending eight hours at the airport sounded miserable, but I already had a plan to go into Moscow. The three best things about living in Moscow:
1. The People – Moscow can be a tough city to live in, for Russians and foreigners. This means you only meet the most intelligent, hard-working, passionate, and driven people in Moscow. People who cannot handle it get filtered out fast. You are surrounded by interesting people who are thriving despite the extremes (positive and negative) of living in Moscow. I had made some great friendships in Moscow.
2. The Banya – Banya is like a sauna, but it’s hotter (95°C – 105°C / 200°F – 220°F). It is usually a “wet” heat by adding water to the hot rocks. Banyas can also be a “dry”, especially when the temperature is above 100°C / 212°F because the steam. The heat hurts so good. You stay in the heat as long as you can, then plunge into cold water. Several plunge options of increasing hardcore coldness:
- Bucket of cold water dumped over body
- Jump into a cold pool of water
- Roll around in the snow (only possible in winter)
- Jump into a frozen lake/river through a hole in the ice (only possible in winter) EXTREME
It’s this rapid contrast in temperatures which is apparently good for your health (according to Russians). Your body is already very hot from the banya, so you want to cool down. You don’t feel the cold immediately, but you do feel the shock. Eventually you start to feel the cold, and I try to take as much as possible in cold plunge or snow before relaxing in a warm/normal temperature pool. Then you repeat the process 3-5 times. Banya is best experienced with a group of friends, so you can discuss politics and solve all the world’s problems. The hot/cold cycles can make you ravenously hungry and incredibly thirsty. Large quantities of food are devoured and liquids are quaffed during the breaks (and afterwards).
3. The Food – Not classic Russian food, which is bland, greasy, and infested with dill. I mean Uzbek and Georgian food, which is the incredible. In particular, the Georgian dish of khachipuri. To explain khachipuri as a baked cheeses pie is to explain sex as a reproductive act. It’s much more magical than that.
Wanting to combine my three favourite things in Moscow, I had arranged to meet some friends for a banya session at the legendary Sanduny Banya.
It was great to see some of my friends again and hear about their latest successes and learned lessons in Moscow. I missed my old, interesting Moscow life.
The blissful feeling after a banya session must be experienced at least once (and preferably many times). All your problems seem less important and easy to manage. Your heart and lungs feel like you ran 10 miles. Your muscles are relaxed, and your skin is soft.
I headed back to the airport on the Aeroexpress train from Paveletsky Vokzal (train station). The banya session with friends was the perfect way to prepare for the next part of the trip. Now nothing stressed me. Not the ridiculously long lines at the airport. Nor the crowded, stinky bus to reach the plane. Nor the wait outside to board the plane in freezing rain. Even the 5.5 hour overnight flight to Irkutsk in a rigid airplane seat did not matter.
Irkutsk to Baikalsk
I still felt calm the next morning, watching the sun rise over Siberia. I had been to Siberia once before in the summer to visit Yakutsk and the Lenskiye Stolby. It was constant daylight and very warm. This was winter. It was covered in a much deeper blanket of snow than Moscow. However, the sun was soon out and gleaming off the beautiful day at Irkutsk International Airport. It was only -11°C / +12°F today (4 March), and would have been much colder in January/February.
We were met at the airport by the Baikal Ice Marathon organisers, a travel company called Absolute Siberia.
A coach drove us from the airport to a hotel near the starting point for the tomorrow’s race on the shore. We drove through Irkutsk, which looked like a typical Russian city. Mostly the same Soviet architecture as other Russian cities. It was fully functional despite a level of snow which would paralyse cities in most other countries.
The coach reached Lake Baikal and it was the first time I had seen the lake. Of course, we took some selfies before continuing along the frozen lake shore to our hotel.
It’s easy to make friends in Russia. I made some new friends on the bus. There was a mix of Russians (mostly from Moscow), foreigners living in Moscow, and foreigners like me who had traveled to Russia just for the Baikal Ice Marathon. There was a large amount of Chinese and Japanese runners. Lake Baikal is closer to Beijing, Shanghai and Tokyo than it is to Moscow, so this should not have been a surprise.
The hotel in Baikalsk was more like a modern ski resort. It was the best accommodation in the area, despite not being next to the lake. We were offered the opportunity to rent equipment and ski. Some over-achievers (all Russians) rented skis and hit the slopes. It was tempting to add this to my story, but I took a nap instead. Later I learned one of the Russian runners had broken his ankle on the slopes, so he would not be running the marathon. Napping is always a good decision.
Planting the seed
We were sharing double rooms with fellow runners. I met my roommate when after waking up. His name was Tom Oldfield, a British teacher living in Moscow. He had signed up to run the half-marathon distance, not the full marathon. I wanted him to do the full marathon distance, so I gave him the ol’ Simon Stare and some real talk.
Me: “Why not run the full marathon distance?”
Tom: “I only trained for a half-marathon distance.”
Me: “If you can run a half-marathon, you can run a full marathon.”
Tom: “Hmm. I was thinking about that. Maybe I’ll ask the race directors if I can transfer to the full marathon distance.”
Me: “Don’t ask permission, just run the full distance.”
Me: “You came here for one reason: to run the Baikal Ice Marathon across Lake Baikal. On Monday, you will be back in Moscow and people will ask you about the race. Would you rather tell them you ran a half-marathon, or you ran the full Baikal Ice Marathon? I know which story I would rather tell.”
Tom: “I’ll think about it…”
My work was done. The seed was planted.
Baikal Ice Marathon
The Baikal Ice Marathon was run across the lake from Tankhoy to Lystvyanka. We had been instructed to prepare our luggage to be transported to the hotel in Lystvyanka. We were transported from the hotel in Baikalsk to the race start in Tankhoy
In the morning, it was -20°C / -4°F outside. We drank hot tea to stay warm in a building next to the lake. I had ice running crampons which fit over normal running shoes to grip the ice. Unfortunately, there is no ice in London so I had never tried running in them before. What could possibly go wrong?
There had been a lot of snow falling during the previous few days. The organisers had bulldozed a course through the snow so we could run on the ice, but the wind last night had covered the course with a new layer of snow. The start of the race was delayed while they tried to clear the course of snow (again).
Eventually they gave up and let us out onto the ice. I tried to warm-up, but it didn’t help. Everyone was excited to start the Baikal Ice Marathon.
Running on the ice was easier than I thought. The crampons felt fine and gripped the ice nicely. It felt like running on new asphalt.
I was wearing four layers on my top, two layers on my legs, two pairs of gloves, two hats, and a thermal neck warmer. I had brought along an empty running pack to take off a top layer after I warmed-up. This never happened. I never felt too warm the entire race. The empty race pack became a extra mini-layer on my back.
There were aid stations along the course, about 6km apart. At the first station, I guzzled water and pushed on.
After the first aid station, the ice was covered in fresh snow blown over the course. Baikal Ice Marathon went from being an ice marathon with patches of snow, to a snow marathon with patches of ice. It was harder to run in the snow, it took more effort and was slower.
The aid stations were supported by small hovercrafts. If you wanted to quit the race, you could just hang out inside one of these hovercrafts until a snowmobile came to take you back. Snowmobiles transported people and supplies along the course, and they patrolled the sections in between aid stations in case of emergency.
By the second aid station, I was losing hope the snow would clear and I would be on ice again.
Baikal Ice Marathon becomes Baikal Snow Marathon
By the half-way mark, I had accepted the rest of the race would be on soft snow. There was a tent at this aid station for runners only doing the half-marathon. I had a quick look inside for Tom. He was not there. I did not see him on the course, so I wondered if he was still running or had dropped out. I had some water, a few medjool dates, and then left the station as soon as possible. Starting to run again would mean avoiding the temptation to quit.
There were brief patches of ice, but the course was now a soft snow field.
The snow looked flat, but the ice underneath was uneven. This meant my foot would sink in to different depths. It was hard to find a rhythm when each step was a surprise.
Over the day, the temperature increased to -16°C / +3°F. The wind added a chill factor of… I do not know, but it was freezing. Coming from the west, the wind pushed my hot breath around the right side of my head. The rapid contrast in temperature caused the moisture in my breath to freeze. Icicles formed on my beard and frost grew on head. I could not feel it, and did not notice until the end of the race.
A bit further along, Tom passed me. This meant he did not stop at the half-marathon. He was going for the full Baikal Ice Marathon. Getting passed during a race can steal some of your confidence, but since I felt entirely responsible for getting Tom to go the full distance it actually gave me a boost. He looked strong. There was no doubt Tom had the confidence to finish.
I tried to shout “Go Tom!”, but I was out of breath from running on the snow. I shed a tear of joy which quickly froze to my cheek.
Running in snow felt like running on a sandy beach. The snow sapped my energy and killed momentum. Every step felt like I was starting from a stand-still. My pace was sluggish and my feet felt heavy.
That was just the physical challenge. Psychologically, the course was even harder. The scenery never changed. There was no sense of motion. I could see the other side of the lake, and the finish, around 25km/15mi in the race. When you can see the finish, it tricks your mind into thinking the race is almost over.
But the Baikal Ice Marathon was not almost over. The finish was still more than 17km/11mi away. It just didn’t seem to get closer. There was not much to distract myself from checking the distance on my GPS watch again and again and again. Sometimes I felt like I was not moving, or even moving backwards. I had to look down at my legs just to make sure I was still going forward.
By this point I wanted to walk, but my hands were painfully numb and I kept running just to get out the cold as soon as possible. I felt like I was running to survive.
At the last aid station, I drank a can of Red Bull. This was pure magic for my mood, and I credit that can with getting me to the finish.
It was a humble finish to a humbling race. My body was numb, and I was confused. I wanted warmth and wandered up to the hotel to recover.
Celebrating Our Survival
I finished 35th out of 155 runners, amazingly, only 12 runners failed to finish. Five runners did not bother to start. Besides the guy who broke his ankle skiing, they had traveled all the way to Lake Baikal and decided to stay in bed.
My finish time was 5:31:15. This was about 2 hours slower than my Moscow Marathon time (3:32:22) about 6 months ago (and I had run some marathons and ultras since). Despite the slower pace, this race was much harder. The Baikal Ice Marathon was the hardest race I had ever done, including much longer races like the CTS Dover Ultra.
The 2016 Baikal Ice Marathon winner was Piotr Hercog from Poland. He finished in 3:55:51 and was the only runner to finish under 4 hours. Second place (4:07:20) was Łukasz Zdanowski, also from Poland. The fastest lady was Daria Manziy (5:00:48), a local from Irkutsk. She finished more than 1 hour faster than 2nd place lady, Li Fengchun (6:04:29) from China. Some runners took more than 7 hours to finish, and two runners were on the ice for more than 8 hours! I was impressed by their tenacity to finish.
I found Tom in the lobby with the other runners. He had finished his first marathon ever, and he beat me (5:19:14). As if that was not already impressive enough, he also received a silver medal for his (technical) 2nd place half-marathon time of (2:17:14). My ego preferred to take credit for the performance rather than ruminate on being bested by a first-timer.
The hotel in Lystvyanka was comfortable, and the hot bath was amazing. Finally my core temperature was back to normal. I met my new roommate, Artyom from Chelyabinsk. We gradually gathered in the hotel bar to swap stories about the day. All the runners came to run the Baikal Ice Marathon expecting a challenge, but no one was expecting to run through snow for almost the entire race. None of us could believe the conditions. Everyone was glad to finish the race and overcome the challenge.
There was an awards dinner for the runners. We received trophies, and in true Russian style we also received certificates with lots of stamps and signatures. Then the organisers confirmed what we had all been wondering:
“These race conditions were the most difficult from any previous Baikal Ice Marathon.”
– Race Director, Baikal Ice Marathon 2016
The crowd loved it. I stole the microphone and gave a speech to thank the volunteers for their support. I also congratulated all the first-time marathoners. Hopefully the experience didn’t scar them for life.
Then we celebrated, Russian style… That means lots of vodka.
The next morning, we stumbled back onto the coach and returned to Irkutsk International Airport. It was -27°C / -16°F. Just imagine: the race could have been even more “interesting”.
Baikal Ice Marathon was over. I made some new friends, and despite the conditions, I had a great time. Never again will I complain it’s too cold to go for a run.
Spasiba Baikal, thanks for all the memories… Never again will I complain it’s too cold for a run…