Craig Updegrove is 37 and grew up in Bethel. He was a member of the high school cross country team there, and he has an ongoing story that he believes could spark pride in his hometown and inspire the current generation of Warriors.
It is the story of a man near the top of the world who works at the bottom of the world, where he has traveled eight times all the longitudinal lines of the world. In less than 14 hours.
Updegrove ran his third marathon at the South Pole Research Center in January, but this time he didn’t stop after 26.2 miles. He continued until he traveled 90 kilometers at 90 degrees south, the southernmost place on the planet.
An Antarctic Sun editor-in-chief said the online journal does not keep records of continental races, but the South Pole Telescope said in a Tweeter that the Updegrove 90K was âdefinitely a record outdoor race for the South Poleâ.
Because Updegrove spent most of his life in subarctic Alaska, the polar conditions during his 56 mile run didn’t look so bad.
At the start, it was minus 17 with a little wind. When it ended 13 hours, 24 minutes and 5 seconds later, the wind had picked up for a minus-35 wind chill.
âI was walking to school in temperatures similar to this one, so the conditions had a deeply familiar sting,â he said in a recent email conversation.
Updegrove is a contract worker at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, a US research center that runs an annual marathon for workers stationed there.
This year’s race took place on January 10 – in the middle of summer at the South Pole and one hour of constant daylight, but the sun never rises high in the sky. On race day it hovered about 22 degrees above the horizon, Updegrove said.
âIt was neat to notice that my shadow moved around me like a sundial throughout the day,â he said.
The race begins and ends at the ceremonial South Pole, a place marked by the flags of the 12 nations that signed the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. It spans a 6.55 mile loop that circles the geographic South Pole, where all the lines of longitude of the world meet.
âI didn’t go that morning to break records,â Updegrove said. âI knew that at 37 I was not going to be the fastest rider, so aiming for first place was not realistic. I was just hoping to try a 32.75 mile ultrarun to do something different from the last two South Pole marathons I’ve run.
Four laps equals a marathon and five ultraruns that Updegrove had in mind, but after five trips around the world the guy who placed 62nd at the Class 1-2 State Cross Country Championships 3A in Alaska was ready for more.
“So I ran around the world 8 times, then I finished the last kilometers (running) between the ceremonial pole and the South Pole telescope,” he said.
Updegrove completed the first 26.2 miles in 5:30:32, which earned her second place in the marathon, and completed 52.4 miles – a double marathon distance – in 12:29:42. This put him just over 5 kilometers from the 90K, and it took him almost an hour to cover the final 3.6 miles.
He covered 10 minutes at the start of the race and 18 minutes at the end. Final time: 13:24:05.
âThe worst part of the race was when my 13 year old iPod nano froze in the third loop,â he said. âFortunately, I was able to hand it over to a volunteer who took it inside and attached two hand warmers. I picked it up on the next pass and was able to get 7 more hours of music from it.
The Updegrove run ended towards the end of 16 months at the South Pole, where he worked as a heavy equipment operator and freight specialist at Scott-Amundsen station. He has spent five previous summers in Antarctica, two at Scott-Amundsen station and three at McMurdo station, another US research center about 1,000 miles north of the South Pole.
He returns to the South Pole this month for another stint.
Updegrove said he didn’t run much after graduating from Bethel High School. He attended art school and moved to Anchorage, where he spent a dozen years working as a sculptor, freelance graphic designer and art director.
âEverything changed when I had a hit-and-run accident,â he said. âThe injury wasn’t too bad, but it put me to bed for about a week and the residual pain stayed with me for months with the nagging thought, ‘What if it had been worse? “
âI started to be obsessed with travel and changing my life. “
In 2015 he applied to work in Antarctica, got it and has been going there ever since.
When Updegrove is ‘off the ice’ he spends his time hiking and biking around the world and doing seasonal jobs. He has traveled the Himalayas, New Zealand and the high desert of Utah, and last week he was “suffering from the heat” in the Pacific Northwest and preparing to return to Antarctica.
“I’m looking forward to the freezing temperatures,” he said.
Antarctica is the coldest place on Earth. Updegrove said it held a 10k last year on the September equinox, the only day there is a sunrise at the South Pole. It was minus-77, he said, “but the long sunrise was beautiful to see after a winter of darkness and was worth the pain through the biting cold.”
There is nearly 2 miles of ice under the Amundsen-Scott station, giving it an elevation of 9,301 feet, Updegrove said, and the low air pressure increases the physiological elevation an additional 1,000 to 2,000 feet from day by day.
âIt took me almost 16 months of life at this altitude to get my saturation (oxygen) down from 92% to 94%,â he said.
For his 90K, Updegrove wore Category 4 ice goggles to protect himself from the sun and shiny snow, which he said can be brutal on the eyes. He used duct tape to cover the parts of his face that were most exposed to the sun and the cold and put sunscreen everywhere else, and always ended up with a sunburnt nose.
The 90K was the byproduct of 16 consecutive months at the South Pole. Prior to 2020-21, Updegrove had only spent summers there. He got through his first long, dark and cold winter spending entire Sundays in the gym, running, biking and rowing.
âThere was a caged hamster effect that hit me pretty hard in the middle of winter,â he said. âThe South Pole is one of the most remote and coldest places on the planet in winter, with no flights during the winter months.
âI was burning a TV series or a stack of movies throughout a session day. The entire first season of Stranger Things gave me my first 32 mile ultra treadmill run. A few of us hosted a Walk to Mordor event where we walked / biked / rowed through all three of the director’s extended versions of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy in one day. I would not recommend this.
Those who stay over the winter have set up physical challenges to keep each other active, he said. There’s the Race to McMurdo (835 miles on a conveyor belt, representing the distance from the South Pole to McMurdo), the Lift to McMurdo (the total weight brought to the South Pole by the LC-130 cargo planes the previous summer, i.e. 1,746,771 pounds), and the Everest Beer Can Challenge.
âThe beer can is what we call the large cylindrical steel shell that descends five stories from the elevated station to the snow-covered surface, which connects to several underground vaulted warehouses,â Updegrove said. “I have worked in these warehouses all winter and have walked up and down these stairs enough times that I easily reached the top of Everest twice.”
It all totaled 90 kilometers at 90 degrees south.
Updegrove has never run a marathon outside of Antarctica, and he doesn’t envision a Nordic version of his feat. Running at the North Pole would be amazing, he said, but he doesn’t think he’ll ever have the money or the job opportunity to get there.
âI once ate at a great Asian buffet restaurant in North Pole, Alaska,â he said. “It’s probably the closest I’ll get.”