ICE MARATHON Clean Water Preservation Run

Running an Ice Marathon in Siberia By Yasunori Arikawa

Running an Ice Marathon in Siberia
By Yasunori Arikawa

Yasunori Arikawa (also known as Kenny Kurata) started running marathons 2 days after his 26thbirthday.  His first marathon was in Stockholm, Sweden where he represented Ukraine. Since then, he has been running an average of four marathons a year combining his passion for running with his passion for travel. In September 2011, while running his 30th marathon, in his 26thcountry, at the Kazbegi Marathon in the Republic of Georgia, he was introduced to the Country Club. He qualified for the Country Club after running his 30th country at the Bratislava Marathon in Slovakia in March, 2013. He has completed 49 marathons in 43 countries. He currently resides in Podolsk, a suburb of Moscow in the Russian Federation.

Lake Baikal (Russian: о́зеро Байка́л, Ozero Baykal, Mongolian: Байгал нуур, Baygal nuur, etymologically meaning, in Mongolian, “the Nature Lake”) is a rift lake in Russia, located in southern Siberia, between Irkutsk Oblast to the northwest and the Buryat Republic to the southeast. It is 4300 kilometeres east of Moscow, and close to the Mongolian border.

Lake Baikal is well known for a handful of superlatives.  It is the deepest lake in the world at nearly two kilometers deep, and holds more water than the five Great Lakes combined. It is also one of the cleanest lakes in the world in terms of water clarity.  It is not surprising that Lake Baikal is a popular holiday destination. However, with its location deep in the heart of Siberia, it isn’t so easily accessible, and most people wouldn’t even consider going there in winter. This is exactly what I decided to do.

The purpose of my trip was simple. Every year, Lake Baikal is the host of a winter time sports festival known as ‘zimlinada’, zima meaning winter in Russian. The festival takes place during the first week of March when the temperature is at a tolerable minus ten degrees.The festivities include sports such as ice fishing and ice golf, but what I was mainly interested in was the annual Lake Baikal ice running marathon! The marathon, like all marathons, is a forty-two kilometer run. Unlike other marathons, the entire forty-two kilometer route of the race is on top of the frozen lake from the eastern coast near Tankhoi to the western coast at Listvyanka. The ice running marathon and half marathon event was the brainchild of a German runner and over half of the nearly one hundred participants were from Germany.

Two days before the race, I was sitting at Moscow’s Sheremetovo airport getting ready to board the Aeroflot flight to Irkutsk. As I sat near the gate, I couldn’t help noticing an unusual amount of German being spoken all around me. It didn’t dawn on me at that time that these were a group of participants for the marathon and that I would be spending the next five days with them pretty much cut off from the rest of the world. We boarded the plane shortly before midnight, and soon after takeoff, I was asleep.

A couple of hours later, I woke up to a bright and sunny day. I looked out the window and saw nothing but white below me.  At first, I thought I was looking at endless clouds. It wasn’t until I saw a tiny speck of a house that realize that I was looking straight down at the snow covered earth.  Welcome to Siberia! I have never seen such a monotonous, featureless landscape before.

After landing in Irkutsk, the marathon participants were greeted by organizers holding up signs.  Two Russian women were going to be our guides for the next few days. Yulia was the Russian-German translator, and had a large group of about fifty people on her hands. Alexandra was the Russian-English translator and was basically responsible for me and a couple of Polish runners.  After collecting our luggage, we immediately boarded buses arranged by the marathon organizers, and within an hour of landing, we were on our way out of Irkutsk and heading towards the tiny resort town of Listvyanka. German efficiency in the middle of Russia: this was definitely a pleasant surprise.  As I talked to an elderly German couple sitting next to me, I found out that almost everyone here was part of a packaged marathon tour extremely popular in Germany. Little did I know that when I had actually registered for the marathon and reserved my hotel room, I was including myself in part of the tour and that there were no other options anyway.

We reached Listvyanka in the early afternoon. Just before entering the resort town, we stopped to take a photo opportunity where the frozen lake met the Angara River. This was our first view of the lake. Much to my amazement, I didn’t see a lake at all.  I only saw a vast white desert of ice as far as the eye can see. Meanwhile, the ice of the lake ended abruptly where the Angara River began almost as if the lake itself was the coast and the ice-free river was the lake. We rolled into town and passed by one empty resort hotel after another. I don’t know where the rest of the zimlinada festivities were taking place, but Listvyanka looked like a ghost town, eerie and empty. We finally arrived at our destination, the Mayak hotel and saw some sign of life. Directly across the street from the Mayak hotel was the lake, and built right on top of the frozen lake was a huge ice palace. Loud pop music was blaring from inside, and there were the delightful squeals of children inside, but we didn’t have much time to loiter as we were rushed into the Mayak hotel and checked in. We were given our rooms, and a schedule of events and meals. Basically, the whole Mayak hotel had been taken over by marathon participants, and with the scheduling, it almost seemed like a summer (or winter) camp type environment. This would be the home of all the participants for the next five days, and with little else to do in town, we were going to get to know each other very well.

Press conference for the Ice marathonThat evening before dinner, we had a press conference. All of the participants gathered together in the meeting room, and we were formally introduced to Yulia and Alexandra, who had been doing an excellent job keeping us informed about everything. We were also introduced to Andrey, the German organizer and brainchild of the ice running marathon, and his Russian counterpart, Alexey. At the press conference, the participants were also given their race bibs and were told specific rules for this race. Basically, on the day of the race, we would be driven across the lake in a caravan of minivans which would drop us off on the other side, and then drive back stopping at five kilometer intervals. These minivans would then serve as aid stations where we can get water, tea and snacks. The directors of the race wanted to stress the fact that we would be running on ice, so that if we wanted refreshments, we had to stop to eat and drink and dispose of the trash then and there with the minivans so that we could keep the racecourse free of liter and the lake clean. The racecourse itself would be clearly marked with red flags, but as we would find out on race day, it would have been hard to get lost anyway, because we would just follow the tire tracks of the minivans back. After the press conference, we were dismissed to go have dinner. But before I could go, the journalists took a special interest in me as not only the sole Japanese runner there, but the only non-European participant. Alexandra came over to see if I needed any help, but I managed to give the interview in Russian. Meanwhile, as I sat amongst the other participants during dinner, I had a great chance to practice my extremely rusty German.

After a restless night of sleep trying to get over jet-lag (Lake Baikal is five hours ahead of Moscow), I awoke early and had a pre-breakfast jog. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one with this idea as several others were scattered around the ice. The fog around the lake prevented the sun from shining through, and the whole landscape seemed eerie. I tentatively half jogged onto the ice, trying to get over the initial panic of this new surface and the realization that although the surface was quite solid, it wasn’t always like that. Still afraid to go out too far, I ran parallel to the coast like the other early morning joggers. Going out into unknown territory, I was spooked by the looming outline of a ship emerging from the fog and stuck fast in the frozen lake. After a couple of laps back and forth on the ice, it was enough for me to introduce myself to the new surface, and I went in for breakfast, still a bit nervous about running a whole marathon on the ice.

Our day was packed with activities, and despite the fact that Listvyanka was completely dead at this time of year, we were kept busy. We made a little excursion to a museum dedicated to Lake Baikal where we learned so much about the lake, and the flora and fauna around the lake. Some of those creatures we learned about look like they came straight out of the Jurassic period. Later in the afternoon, we made our way to a ski resort, where we took the chair lift up to the top of a mountain, and got a great view of the lake. We arrived back to the Mayak hotel in the late afternoon as the sun was setting over the winter landscape. We had our dinner, and I noticed that my German was significantly better than the night before. After dinner, the marathon participants were free to do their own things. Many of them turned in for the night preparing for the big race the next day.  A group of us headed over to the cafe across the street for after dinner snacks and drinks.  While having some traditional Russian soup called ‘solyanka’, and having a conversation in German, I couldn’t get over how surreal this whole situation was. I had run a previous sixteen marathons, and never was there such a sense of comradery and community. The past two days have been spent in such a remote location with very little contact with anybody not involved with the marathon. It seemed like we had the whole world to ourselves and I was really enjoying it. This was an extremely unique marathon experience.

Start of the Ice MarathonThe next morning, after another restless night of jet-lag, I woke up surprisingly refreshed, excited, and very nervous about the day ahead. About a hundred excited runners packed the dining room of the hotel preoccupied with pre-race preparations, and almost too excited to eat. Outside, eight minivans were parked, ready to transport us across the lake. Breakfast was a blur, and before we knew it, we were standing outside in the sweltering minus seven degree weather, the sun shining bright, and not a cloud in the sky. We crossed the street and onto the lake where two large wooden blocks marked the finish line of the race. The marathon organizers brought out some pre-race vodka, and several runners partook in a shot before boarding the vans.

The ride over to the other side of the lake was such an incredible and unusual experience in itself.  Travelling across the lake was a long and slow journey. Unlike the smooth ice of an ice rink, the deepest lake in the world freezes in a jagged jigsaw of ice. Some of the ice shards were as tall as the vehicles we were travelling in. Our ride was as bumpy as if we were travelling on an unpaved mountain road, and had the texture of driving over miles of broken glass. At one point, about two thirds of the way across, we were delayed by what was the race director’s greatest fear. The first driver spotted water. We all exited our vehicles as the race director came by in a hovercraft, and contemplated the situation. Half an hour later, after deeming it safe enough the participants were crossing the feared river by hovercraft, while each driver took turns gunning their motors and speeding across the not so solid surface. After all the vans were on the other side, we boarded the vehicles again, and made it all the way to the other side with little more mishaps. We arrived at the start line an hour and a half later than the marathon was actually scheduled to begin, and after a brief period of last minute warm up, the small crowd of participants, who by this time knew each other well, were gathered at the start line for the official start of the fourth annual Lake Baikal Ice Running marathon. The butterflies in my stomach were having a field day. The vans had already driven away and there was nothing but forty two kilometers of ice between where we were, and our destination.

The race began two hours late, and one hundred runners made their way out into the vast white landscape. The first kilometer or so was a struggle trying to run in knee deep snow that had collected near the shores. Eventually, we came out onto the jagged ice running in almost single file following the tire tracks of the vans, where the ice had been crushed and was relatively smooth. By simple courtesy and understanding, almost all of the runners kept to the right tire tracks unless making a pass. A makeshift wooden bridge was placed at the small river that had caused the delay on the way over. At the ten kilometer mark, the runners had spread out enough that things were getting a bit lonely. Running on iceFrom about the fifteenth to the eighteenth kilometer, there was a long stretch of smooth ice almost enough to create a frictionless surface for our sneakers.  It wasn’t too difficult to stay upright. However, looking down, I could see the large cracks going down for several meters where the ice froze together, and it was quite a scary thought knowing that the closest land was almost two kilometers directly below me. At every five kilometers, we were greeted by the drivers of the vans, given refreshments, and asked how we were doing. After drinking some hot tea as fast as possible, we would be on our way again as the volunteers gave us words of encouragement. Two hovercrafts roamed the race course making sure everything was running smoothly.

Possibly the most difficult part of the race was the last five kilometers. At about the thirty seventh kilometer, I could see the Mayak hotel and hear the music blaring out from the finish line. However, no matter how much I ran, it did not seem to get any closer. I was already exhausted, and it seemed as if I wasn’t making any progress at all. It was incredibly frustrating. With two kilometers left to go, I was caught up by one of the Polish runners. He came up alongside me and said let’s run together. Having not seen another person since the last van at kilometer thirty-five, this was the encouragement I needed to keep going. We ran the final two kilometers together, and as we were about to cross the finish line, he asked if I would help him. He brought out a Polish flag, and we crossed the finish line together each carrying one side of the flag. The race was finally over! I had just completed my seventeenth marathon. Much needed warm food was provided for us at the finish line. I was beginning to feel the minus seven temperature now that I had stopped running, especially since I was wet with sweat. I was overjoyed with my marathon finish, but I was also looking forward to a warm shower.

That night, we had dinner in a more celebratory manner. Of all the runners that started the race, only two did not finish, the last finisher crossing the finish line after the sun had already set. We ate, drank and had a wonderful time now that the race was over. Finisher medals were given out, and we partied until late at night. I slept well that night, finally over my jet-lag, or just plain exhausted after a long run.

Two days later, we were back in civilization at the Irkutsk airport. For the last five days, our world was the tiny empty resort town of Listvyanka, and the memories were still fresh in our minds. Now, we were going our separate ways, most of the Germans flying back together on a separate flight from mine. It was time to say our sad good byes and shake hands with Alexey and Andrey, the two race directors, Yulia and Alexandra, the two translators/ guides and the participants, all of who made this wonderful race possible. This was truly a unique and unforgettable race.

For more details about the Lake Baikal Ice Running Marathon, check out the race website


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