Thanks to the optimal training conditions last winter, we, the Swiss recreational athletes Dominik Högger and Daniel Eberli, mastered the 42.2 km over the frozen Lake Baikal in Siberia well. Since its first execution 13 years ago, only 9 Swiss have defied the cold and taken up the freezing challenge. The special equipment required included running shoes with spikes, several layers of insulating clothing and face protection. The effort has paid off.
However, the adventure began months before the flight to Siberia. Because of the extreme conditions in Siberia, the organizer checks all runners carefully. In addition to a medical certificate, a “runner’s CV” must also be submitted before the actual registration and visa application for Russia can take place. After studying the reports of previous events and the expected weather conditions, we put together the equipment and planned a hard marathon training over the winter months. We did many training runs with our running group in the snow and on bare ice. The frozen Sihlsee and the skate line, an iced path in the Albula valley made it possible to practice the race with the ice spikes over several kilometres.
The actual flight to Irkutsk, built on permafrost soil, was quickly planned and Aeroflot took us at the beginning of March via Moscow to our destination.
Life is really tough in Siberia. The rough weather forces practically everything to take place inside. Vegetables are rare and have to be delivered from far away. The streets are empty and also the shops look closed because of the barricades and the weather protection. By bus, we drove two hours over snow-covered roads to Lake Baikal. Since the bus windows are decorated with ice roses in no time, we didn’t even notice at first that we have already arrived at the mightiest lake in the world. As you get out, the cold creeps into every crack and we closed all available zippers. It snowed heavily and the contours of the snow-covered lake surface and the clouds are flowing. Bright white as far as the eye can see. In order to reach the snow-covered ice surface, we first had to climb over a frozen wave that pressed the thick layer of ice millimetre by millimetre against the shore. It is a feeling of happiness to finally stand on the lake with both feet. We have arrived.
The briefing in the evening before the race is short and concise: The ice over the entire distance of 42 kilometres is thick and has only two big cracks that we can overcome thanks to wooden planks. Stories circulate that last year a runner fell into a crack and had to withdraw the marathon. Also, frostbite on cheeks and nose is reported, but the weather forecast for tomorrow is rather mild with -10°C. We haven’t seen the sun yet, but tomorrow the clouds will disappear during the day. The evening before we carefully prepare clothes, balaclava, shoes and glasses and fill the carbohydrate stores with a big pasta dish.
The next morning, hovercraft and minibus shuttles drive us to the starting line. It is a strange picture to see all the colourfully disguised runners from all over the world. The majority of the field is from Russia and Asia. Inside a tent, we try to keep warm by jumping until we finally start at 10:30h. The countdown in Russian resounds through a megaphone and the athletes run onto the open ice. The trail is well marked with red flags and the organizers have flattened the snow with a small snow groomer. As the muscles are still very cold at the beginning, there are tensions in unusual places. After an initial spurt, we quickly notice that we have to slow down and try to stick to the GPS watch. The special shoes with spikes work great and we are making good progress.
Of course, it would be more relaxed to run a marathon with a short sleeve shirt and shorts in a warm place somewhere else in the world. But exactly because we take on these exertions, this bizarre place opens up for us and we are allowed to see and experience Siberia. The view into the endless ice and snow desert is breathtaking and always gives us the strength to come over the lows during the following 42 km. At the start, the opposite bank with the high mountains is not yet visible. Only after 15 km, we can confirm that the lake is really surrounded by high mountains.Navigation or distance valuation is impossible in this garish, contourless environment. The soundscape is also unique: twice, the Trans-Siberian Railway rumbles past the shore, otherwise, it is quiet. We only hear snow crunching under our shoes and the harsh scratching of the spikes on the ice. From time to time, accompanied by a black diesel cloud, snow motorcycles and hovercrafts pass us and make sure that we have no medical problems. The aid stations every seven kilometres offer tea, water, dried fruits, Russian chocolate and cheese cubes. We are glad that we have our energy gels with us. To prevent them from freezing, we keep them warm in a pocket under the insulation layer.
For the half marathon runners, the finish line is right in the middle of the lake. After finishing, they’re brought to the hotel by hovercrafts. We’re happy that we trained for the marathon, so we have twice as much fun. As always it gets tough after 30 km, but then the finish in the small fishing village Listvyanka comes into sight. However, the good visibility deceives one. You think you’re close to the finish, but you’re not. Again, we rely on the GPS watches and wait patiently with the final acceleration.
Of course, there are no spectators on the whole course, but there will be a lot of clapping at the finish. With our hands up we run across the finish line after 4 hours 25 minutes and then fall into the fresh snow. Euphoric and richer by a big adventure, we go with small steps to the hotel to avoid cooling down.
The organizers deserve a lot of praise. They organized the marathon perfectly in this harsh environment. The only drawback is that the Finisher medals went missing. All the more, we’ll proudly wear our finisher shirts.
Even today, as I write these lines, I can simply close my eyes and see and feel the icy desert of Lake Baikal. The pictures from cold Siberia are probably eternally stored in our heads and hearts.