Going the distance–in Antarctica

-Google the word Antarctica and this is what you get: “Antarctica is the coldest, highest, windiest, driest and iciest continent on Earth.”

Can you imagine running a marathon there?

Kiersten Pfeifer has envisioned it since 2006.

That’s the year she graduated from Wheaton with a degree in anthropology and the year she signed up for the Antarctica Marathon, organized by Marathon Tours & Travel. Believe it or not, the race is so popular that there is a years-long waiting list, never mind that birds are known to dive bomb the runners and energy gel packets freeze there.

Pfeifer finally got to run it this year on February 28, in 50 mph winds. Not only did she run the marathon, which she described as “tough, but amazing,” she also won in her under-age-39 division, finishing at 5:14:24.

“I signed up for the race, thinking it would be a great way to celebrate graduation,” said Pfeifer, who works as a medical software consultant for Health Data Specialists, LLC, and is pursuing a master’s degree in public health. “I knew I wanted to run at least one marathon, but wasn’t sure I’d want to do more than one. So I decided that I would make the one a big one!

-“I love to travel, but the anthropologist in me doesn’t like to do the typical touristy things. I figured this would be a very unique way to experience the continent. Another thing that interested me about this trip was that there would be naturalists and historians on the boat going there, so we’d be able to learn about what we were seeing.”

While waiting for Antarctica, she ran six half marathons and two full marathons, training 40 to 50 miles a week for races, and 20 to 30 miles a week the rest of the year.

That’s a long way from when she first showed up for track practice in high school. She almost couldn’t make it through the one-mile warm-up, which surprised her because she had been a competitive gymnast. “I resolved to change that and haven’t stopped running since,” said Pfeifer.

Along the road, she has overcome many challenges and learned to persevere.

She began running long distance at Wheaton when she joined the running club, and she quickly increased her mileage, as well as tolerance for the unexpected. “With the running club, everything was an adventure. We trained through snowstorms, got attacked by goats off Pine Street, and had lots of interesting things shouted at us as we ran through Norton. The year we did the Hyannis Marathon relay it was pouring rain the entire race. The puddles were so big in places it was like running through a lake. We all had massive blisters at the end.”

-As an anthropology major, she focused on medical anthropology. She also taught technology classes as her work-study job. Her current career connects her interests in health and technology.

It also keeps her traveling, which makes training for marathons difficult. There have been a lot of 4 a.m. runs, and runs immediately after getting off a red-eye flight. In November 2010, as she trained for Antarctica, she even had to fight off a masked attacker. While running on her favorite trail, she heard heavy footsteps behind her.

“As I turned to look behind me, hands went around my neck and I was tackled to the ground. I started screaming and flailing and my attacker released his grasp. Luckily, I was okay, physically. The biggest damage was emotional. I have never been afraid to run by myself in strange, and not so strange, places. But after being attacked less than a mile from my house, on a trail by a nice suburban neighborhood, I no longer consider any place ‘safe.’”

But she hasn’t let anything get in her way. “I ran a 23-miler the day after the Christmas blizzard,” she said. “It was certainly good practice for running in slippery conditions!”