Written by Tadej Maligoj, Translated by Maruša Maligoj
In the beginning it sounded like a good idea: a long run in a straight line across a vast, snowy plain. During my running training in autumn this would’ve been merely a fun addition to one of the three long runs I did every week. However, after finishing Burja I could barely walk, let alone run, and on top of that I also caught not only one, but two colds – first at an unheated concert at the castle, and afterwards in Istria at Brtonigla.
When the Siberian cold was paying a visit to Slovenia, I did not take advantage of the opportunity to check how –15° feels on the skin. I vegged out by the fireside, warming up my bones, and stared through the window with a worried look in my eyes. I was slightly afraid of my solitary trip across Siberia, and my self-confidence was waning. If I hadn’t spent a whole fortune on the starting fee, I would’ve probably pulled a sickie and stayed home.
I spot them straight away during our boarding in Moscow. You can always recognise runners – just search for those pushing against a wall stretching their calf muscles. Despite being a couple of thousand kilometres away, there is no question where we’re headed. The Eurasian continent is enormous, but it’s not like Siberia’s hosting a lot of running competitions at the moment. But the one it does, is without a doubt exceptional: Baikal Ice Marathon, a run across the frozen Baikal Lake.
The marathon is two days away, time to meet some people! A Spaniard and an Englishman are here for the second time, a woman from New York is raising money for a charity by accomplishing great feats, a Swiss guy has come to do a commercial for Bucherer watches … A Dutch guy in a polar suit is only preparing himself for ‘the real’ marathon on the North Pole. There are also a couple of Polish dudes with hundreds of finished marathons; one of them has fourteen spartathlons under his belt.
What an awesome gang. But when we are offered a welcome vodka, no one takes a sip, nor flicks in the honour of spirits. A thought pops into my head: this might come back to bite us …
I share a room with Alexandr from Omsk who doesn’t speak a word of English, so I’m forced to put my basic Russian to use. As far as simple conversations about running, marathons and weather are concerned, I’m not doing half bad. Russians really appreciate if anyone tries to speak a little bit of Russian, so he tells me to call him ‘Sasha’ in no time. He tells me he’s come here to show his children that where there’s a will, there’s a way. Funny, I’ve come here to give my wife and kid a break. We all have some kind of a family reason to come here.
On the other side of the lake, at the start area, we sleep in a hotel next to a ski slope, so – of course – I rent ski equipment. The ski boots are as soft as butter, the skis won’t even move, the ski poles are short … Yet, wow! I’m riding powder, weaving between Siberian birch trees! After two hours, I’m completely frozen. I return the equipment and go for a run all the way to the lake. I take my first steps across the ice and take in the view spreading over the endless whiteness.
The evening brief is led by a strict man, reminding me of a KGB officer, who is presented in a completely different light once his last sentence is translated: ‘If someone’s gotta go, no problem – just step a meter away from the track and squat. 160 thousand seals do the exact same thing on a daily basis.’
One hundred and fifty runners are looking out from the warm comforts of the first floor, asking themselves the same thing: What to put on? The organisers keep assuring us there is no way to predict the weather for the whole marathon track; the lake is vast and unpredictable. I layer up; I put three layers on my butt, four layers plus a windbreaker on my torso, wrap a scarf around my head and put on a pair of glasses. And let’s not forget two layers of socks and mittens and gloves. When I get hot, I’ll store the clothes in my backpack, in which I’m keeping my camera and first aid.
They let us through the door towards the start according to our race numbers – it makes it easier for them to count us all. Above us the clear blue skies, in front of us a white plain expanding as far as the eye can see. I don’t particularly like city marathons, because the terrain is too monotonous, and not nearly interesting enough, but now I’m facing a 42-kilometre long straight line, completely engulfed in white. An hour from now we’ll be scattered all over the place, and there won’t be another person in sight. It’s said that after a while you lose your sense of movement.
The only invasion into this meditation will be the refreshment stops along the track serving warm tea and deep frozen food.
The first half
Siberia’s long-lasting cold is dry and bitter. Dry, fluffy snow is blown around by the wind. The snow was cleared from the track in the morning, but to no avail. The track is once again covered in powder, my feet sinking into it all the way to my ankles, and deeper. The majority of runners have equipped themselves with ice cleats, but now we’re facing a completely different problem – no one anticipated such a difficult terrain. The only useful tactic is to mince and tilt our bodies forward.
The scarf wrapped around my head protects my skin from frostbite and allows me to warm up the air a bit before it enters my lungs. It’s far from pleasant. The damp, frozen fabric doesn’t let much air through and I’m half-suffocating. I try to put some more space between my mouth and the fabric by stretching it over my nose, but I end up with steamed up, and later frozen, glasses. I try sticking my tongue out, which wouldn’t be smartest idea if I fell. Aside from that, I feel absolutely great! Whenever I manage to catch up with somebody, I take a selfie with them.
The wind is getting stronger, blowing from the right and also slightly from the back. I draw a hoodie over my head – I absolutely love running cocooned like this. It gives me a sense of comfort and safety in this inconvenient weather.
Considering the terrain, I’m actually progressing relatively fast. At this pace it should take me about five hours. Strong winds are lifting the snow and spreading it all around. The runner in front of me suddenly vanishes in the whiteness that has blotted out the horizon. I’m enjoying myself to the fullest. It occurs to me that this marathon will be over too soon.
And then, shock! Halfway through, I am redirected into a tent. We’re not allowed to continue, the race is over, there’s a blizzard and it has become too dangerous. The concentration of adrenaline in the tent is high, and we keep encouraging each other to break the rules. Kanyeshna, we’re going all the way! But every individual who attempts an escape is dragged back into the tent.
After half an hour, I finally calm down, and when I exit the tent, I get chilled to the bone. With the speed of lightning I go into a giant EMERCOM truck (Russian Rescue Corps). While driving towards the finish line we pick up runners who have got past the roadblock. Whenever we open the doors, we get a feel of the blizzard raging outside. Those who have made it to the 35th kilometre later tell us that the visibility was less than 10 metres. Once we’re dropped off at the finish line flags we take a few selfies with a wry smile on our faces.
I find a Robert from the Czech Republic, who is, same as me, the only representative of his country. I keep joking that we’re “Czecho-Slovenians”.
Russians take vecherinkas very seriously, and all of us runners from 21 countries joined in as well. They bring us mountains of good food, even delicious fish from the lake. The organiser takes a microphone: speeches, thanks, medal ceremony. The translation into English is poor, so only half of us are paying attention. After the official part is over, a playback singer takes the stage and the party, fuelled by (of course) Baikal vodka, begins. Runners don’t really have the best motoric skills, which is evident from our dancing.
The dancefloor is filled with finisher t-shirts, ostentatious proofs of run marathons. One guy put up a whole fashion show – every day he sported at least two different t-shirts, finishing with the one from the Badwater Ultramarathon for the grand finale. How lame … Until I see myself in the mirror. Gosh, I’m also wearing a finisher t-shirt! I use them as consumable goods that I never wash and usually leave behind in hotels. In my defence, I really wasn’t counting on wearing short sleeves in Siberia. Now I’m determined to cut up a whole drawer’s worth of t-shirts back at home and use them as bike cleaning rags.
Jose is announced as the winner – he made it to the 39th kilometre before he was pulled in the hovercraft. He shows us his tattoo at the ceremony. We’re all happy for him.
The day after
The next day I gauge the morale. Some of us still have mixed feelings, sure that we would’ve made it to the end, that they should’ve let us through. The majority is relieved – this was probably the toughest half ever for the city marathon runners. The handful of runners who opted for only 21k couldn’t care less. The Swiss guy is seeing red – he came here to do a watch commercial. The Chinese guy is probably the happiest of us all – after all, he only came to himself in the hospital.
The wind was really powerful, and according to the organiser’s words we were jointly attacked by longitudinal Verhovik and notorious Barguzine with winds of up to 25mps (Baikal has 30 winds with different names). The temperatures dropped to –15°C, but due to the winds it felt more like –28°C. Meeting Siberia face to face. Whoever had lost their way in the next 20 km, would’ve had slim chances of survival. The icy surface offers no shelter.
Jose is suffering the most, thanks to yesterday’s Russian celebration. He wasn’t stopped by Baikal’s ice and wind, it was Baikal vodka that did him in. It’s a pity that we didn’t drink some vodka in time, when we still had a chance to make peace with the spirits of Baikal.