In normal conditions, Paul Robinson can smash four minutes for the mile, but this was anything but normal.
Last Saturday, more than 10,000 miles from his home in Kilcock, the 26-year-old Irish athlete ripped across a snow-covered glacier and clocked what was, by some distance, the fastest mile ever run in Antarctica.
“With the wind-chill, it was minus-20 when I ran,” said Robinson, speaking on a layover in Santiago, Chile before flying back to Ireland. “It was so hard to warm up. I was wearing three layers of tights, this massive jacket, but you just cannot get warm.”
Robinson, who finished fourth in the European 1500m final in 2014, had been flown there by Richard Donovan, an Irish ultra-runner who organises the Antarctic Ice Marathon among other adventure races.
Donovan first contacted him three weeks ago to float the idea and Robinson, who was in the middle of his base training, jumped at the chance.
“Everyone can associate with the mile and doing stuff like this is a great way to show how cool it is to run a four-minute mile,” he said. “Both Richard and I appreciate that it’s not confined to a track and can be raced anywhere, whether on the streets of Galway or New York, as I’ve done before.”
He set off last Monday, flying 14 hours from London to Santiago then four hours to Punta Arenas in the south of Chile, before taking his final four-hour flight on a cargo plane to the glacier in Antarctica.
He arrived at his base camp on Thursday, an area of tents clustered together and surrounded by fencing that he wasn’t allowed leave.
“There were crevasses all around, and if you go out and go down one of those, you’re not coming back,” he said.
While many others had travelled there to compete in the marathon, which took place over four laps of a 10km course around the glacier, Robinson’s task was more straightforward.
That’s not to say it was easy, however. “The course I ran on was a straight line through a plateau, like a snow desert,” he said. “The snow is not really deep, it’s just energy-sapping. It’s very hard to describe because it’s not like I’ve ever been in a place like this before. You can’t even see a mile, you’re literally just running into white with a mountain on each side.”
At midday on Saturday afternoon, he laced up his spikes and set off alone at a high tempo – a big mistake.
“You’re used to going four-minute [mile] pace in races, but your foot is going two or three inches into the snow. After a slight incline I got to halfway and thought: ‘oh my God, I’m nearly falling over.’ I was like: holy f***, I don’t know how I’m going to get to the end.
“Your legs are going to jelly and I had this drone following me and I was like: ‘I can’t hit the deck, I have to finish.’”
That he did, crossing the line in 4:17.9 to cover the mile much quicker than anyone had in such conditions.
The following morning, he and Donovan managed to fly back to Chile shortly before a blizzard arrived which would have kept them there for a week. And now that he’s back to the relative comfort of an Irish winter, Robinson will settle into his usual training routine to prepare for a tilt at the European Championships in Berlin next summer.
Having finally thawed out, he’ll be left with fond memories of his Antarctic adventure.
“It was a surreal experience,” he said. “The coolest thing I’ve ever done.”
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