It was early March 2008; not exactly the time when people think about going to Siberia. However, I had a reason to go. The reason for my trip to Lake Baikal during one of the coldest months of the year was for their annual ‘Zimnada’ winter sports competition. The highlight of the sports competition was the Lake Baikal Ice Running marathon in which competitors were to run 42,195 km across the frozen lake from the eastern shores near Tankhoi to the western shores at Listvyanka. Marathons are extreme enough, but this was probably the most extreme marathon I had ever done.
I arrived at Sheremetovo 1, where I would catch a domestic flight from Moscow to Irkutsk. I had already registered for the marathon, but I did not know that the marathon organizers would be waiting for me when I arrived. As I boarded the late night flight out of Moscow, I happened to notice the huge number of Germans on my flight. I would later learn that I was flying with practically everyone I would compete against.
As it turns out, the Lake Baikal Ice Running marathon was the brainchild of a German runner who had been travelling to Lake Baikal twice a year for several years now. The annual marathon had begun three years earlier and still didn’t have the publicity of many other marathons throughout the world. Although the marathon organizers were trying to promote the race to a wider audience, the race was still quite small with less than fifty competitors with over half of the participants coming from Germany. As a matter of fact, I only found out about this marathon through an advertisement at an earlier marathon which I had done in München.
A few hours after take-off, I woke up to the bright sun shining through the small window as we flew east to a place five hours ahead of Moscow. I looked out the window and saw the clear blue sky above, and bright whiteness below. It took me a few minutes to realize that I was not looking at clouds. Below me was the snow-covered Siberian landscape. The only indication that I was looking at the ground was the occasional shack poking out of the snow. There were no signs of trees, meandering rivers, hills, roads, or anything else that resembled normal topography.
When we landed, I was surprised to see a woman holding up my name as we arrived at the baggage claim. She introduced herself as Alexandra, and she would be the English speaking coordinator who would make sure that everything concerning the marathon went smoothly. Her German speaking counterpart, Yulia, gathered the German runners together. I didn’t know what I was really expecting when I arrived to Irkutsk, but I wasn’t expecting such efficiency. I collected my bags and was herded onto a bus along with forty German speakers. Not even an hour had passed since we landed and we were already on our way out of Irkutsk and heading towards Listvyanka, where the finish of the marathon and our hotel would be.
As we drove towards Listvyanka, I got to know some of the German runners and tried to practice the little German I had once known and forgotten when I learned Russian. All of the competitors were staying at the same hotel in Listvyanka, the Hotel Mayak. For the next three days, we would have meals together and see a lot of each other. When we arrived in Listvyanka, it became clear that we were going to get to know each other very well. The Hotel Mayak was located right on the shore of Lake Baikal, and other than a café, two small shops, and an ice palace built right on the frozen lake, there was nothing else to do and nowhere else to go. It seems like it would be a boring place. Had I been alone, it probably would have been. However, like summer camp, we were kept so busy and spent so much time with each other that we never had a chance to get bored.
We had a free day the day before the marathon. I woke up early and had a jog on the frozen lake along with a handful of other runners who had the same idea. Then we had a full schedule of activities ahead of us. The marathon organizers planned a whole excursion for us. We went to a museum where we saw the unusual flora and fauna of the Lake Baikal region. Some of the facts about Lake Baikal is truly amazing. Lake Baikal is famous for being the deepest lake in the world at almost two kilometers deep. Lake Baikal also has more water than any other lake and still boasts as being the cleanest lake in the world with a water clarity almost double of the second clearest lake.
After the museum, we went to a ski resort where we were able to take lifts to the top of a nearby mountain and get a clear view of the lake down below. The whole lake was a barren, frozen, white desert stretching for forty kilometers to the other side where we would start the marathon. The only indication that there was a lake below us was the fast-flowing Angara River to the south, which stays unfrozen.
That night, I walked about 100m out onto the ice and looked out into total darkness. The ice palace and hotel behind me were the only source of light. The following day, I would be forty kilometers away running towards where I was standing. It was an awesome thought. I had the pre-race jitters. When I went to bed that night, I couldn’t sleep. Not because of nervousness, but because of jet lag! At midnight, it was only 7pm in Moscow!
The next morning, I woke up rested and had breakfast with all the other runners. Six vans and three hovercrafts were parked out front ready to transport us across the lake. After breakfast, we headed out to the vans. On the frozen lake was a huge finish line and small red flags every 100m or so to guide us across the lake.
We loaded the vans and started across the lake. It was quite an adventure. Although vehicles can and regularly do travel on the frozen lake, very few vehicles actually cross the lake, which means there are no roads. For a small pond, which freezes evenly, this would not be a problem. For the biggest lake in the world with its currents, things don’t freeze so smoothly. Large chunks of ice freeze together leaving a jagged landscape, some of the ice chunks forming towers almost twice as high as the vans we rode in. The ride across the lake was slow and bumpy. We were meandering along a path of crushed ice that had been previously carved out by the marathon organizers who had put the red flags in the ice. This would be the path we ran back on.
After about thirty kilometers, we came across a long delay. The first van had spotted water and the organizers where wondering what to do. It wouldn’t be good to have anyone fall through the ice far from land. Half an hour later, we were ordered out of the vans. The competitors were transported across the slush in the hovercrafts while the drivers of the vans each took turns gunning their vehicles across the small river in the ice. I couldn’t help thinking that if anything were to happen, those vans would sink two kilometers to an icy grave.
The vehicles made it across, and we loaded the vans and continued on out way. We finally arrived at the start line two hours behind schedule, and one hour after the marathon was supposed to start. Fifty competitors got out of the vans and quickly got ready for the start of the race. In the mean time, the six vans were already heading back towards Listvyanka where they would stop at five kilometer intervals and serve as aid stations for the race.
The temperature was a crispy -7 degrees, the sun was shining and we were all set to go. The gun went off, and the fourth Lake Baikal Ice Running marathon was finally under way one and a half hours behind schedule. The first five kilometers were very slow going as we ran through about a foot of snow. Most runners stayed in a single file line, running along the tire tracks, and using the second set of tire tracks as a passing lane. When we got to the small river along the course, we saw that the race organizers had improvised by putting a few wooden planks across the water as the hovercrafts hovered nearby in case of an accident. In the heat of the competition, none of the runners including myself seemed too concerned of the danger there.
It wasn’t until I reached the fifteenth kilometer that it dawned on me how amazingly crazy this was. I was running across a smooth field of ice not covered by snow. Looking down at the ice and two kilometers of nothingness below me, I felt slightly frightened. I could clearly see the cracks where the ice froze together and how deep they went. Fortunately, I was too focused on getting to the finish line and not slipping to worry about the fact that the nearest land was two kilometers directly below me.
I continued along the endless, monotonous route occasionally passing or getting passed by other runners. Every five kilometers, there was a group of volunteers to cheer us on and hand out goodies. After spending three days together, everyone knew each other, and it felt comforting hearing my name along with encouragements.
The last five kilometers of the race was the toughest five kilometers I have ever run in any marathon. Because of the landscape, the finish line was now in sight, although five kilometers away. From this distance, I could hear the music blasting away at the finish line. But no matter how much I ran across the jagged surface, the finish line didn’t seem to get any closer. I was overcome by fatigue and frustration, enhanced by the fact that the temperature was sub-zero. It seemed as if the finish line were teasing me, staying just out of reach.
At the forty kilometer marker with two kilometers to go, I was caught up by a Polish competitor who encouraged me to run the rest together. Somehow, I regained the energy needed to run alongside the Pole and the finish line was finally drawing near. With about 200 meters to go, the Polish runner asked me to help him. He pulled out a Polish flag from his back pocket and handed me two corners of the flag. We ran the last 200 meters and crossed the finish line together waving the Polish flag.
After hugging each other and getting congradulations from race officials, we were led to a set of tables where other runners were already enjoying hot bowls of kasha. I was just settling in with my bowl of kasha when a journalist and cameraman asked me for an interview. As one of the few foreigners who could speak Russian and as the only Japanese competitor, they wanted to get my impression of the race. I felt honoured although I struggled through the interview.
After the kasha and a nice hot shower, we went to the hotel’s banquet hall where there was a huge party for the marathon competitors. It was by far the greatest post race party ever. By now, everyone were practically friends. It almost seemed sad that the next day, we would head back to Irkutsk, then to Moscow, and then our separate ways. We all toasted to Andrey, the German race director who had the dream, Alexei, the Russian counterpart who made it all possible, and of course to Yulia and Alexandra who made sure that everything went smoothly for the foreigners throughout the whole marathon weekend.
Although Lake Baikal is a popular summer destination, it is also a very beautiful place to visit in the winter time. Very few experiences compare to the chance to walk along the frozen lake. Winter time also offers the chance to ski or snowboard at some of the resorts where you can get a clear view of the frozen lake. And of course, if anybody feels up to the challenge of a lifetime, the Lake Baikal Ice Running marathon takes place annually on the first weekend of March. They also offer a half marathon. You can find out more information about this marathon at http://www.baikal-discovery.ru/en/index.php. Aeroflot flies daily to Irkutsk from Sheremetovo 1 at one in the morning.