Serious about sports at end of the Earth

Pop quiz: What's the sportiest continent in the world?

Nope, sorry, try again …

Answer: Antarctica.

Hang on a minute -- surely there's some mistake. Antarctica is a land of unfathomable cold, winter nights that last six months and a handful of research stations … isn't it?

It sure is. And the folks there love their sports.

Actually, it makes perfect sense. Sports are universal, as any beer league softball star, after-work golfer or suburban-park marathon runner will tell you. Sports let us unwind from the stresses of the workday and bond with our friends. They feed our need for competition, and they let us keep fit while we blow off some steam.

And this need for sports is magnified a thousandfold at McMurdo Station, the primary U.S. base in Antarctica and the largest community on a continent the size of the U.S. and Mexico combined. This is, after all, one of the most remote spots on the planet, where working conditions are some of the harshest and most unforgiving imaginable. But that hasn't prevented the majority of residents from developing acceptable playing conditions for numerous activities.

Allison Batdorff is the recreation coordinator at McMurdo Station, and she has more experience with Antarctic living than most; when she completes her current tenure this month, she'll have spent 14 consecutive months there. She knows firsthand just what an important role sports play in the lives of the locals.

Batdorff points out that for those stationed in Antarctica, the balance of work and home life is entirely different than what most of us take for granted. "At home, most people's lives are divided in between recreation and the responsibilities of maintaining their children, home and lifestyle," she says. "We don't have lawns to mow, children, pets or parents to care for. We have considerably more time and energy, and need an outlet for it. Recreation -- organized or homespun -- is critical in this environment. It plays a huge role in keeping us healthy, happy and not bored."

Given just how much the base at McMurdo has developed and expanded over the years, a first-time visitor might be surprised to find what amounts to a modern city in miniature. "If they picture us wearing furs and living in tents like [Ernest] Shackleton," Batdorff says, they're in for a real eye-opener. Operated by the National Science Foundation's United States Antarctic Program since 1959, the sprawling station on the shore of McMurdo Sound has grown to include living quarters, laboratories, garages, a greenhouse, a pub and even an ATM. Not to mention some really first-rate sports facilities.

The crown jewel of organized sports is McMurdo's "Big Gym." It is home to a climbing wall, and it's the prime indoor venue for basketball, volleyball, soccer and dodgeball. There's also a weightlifting gym, plus the affectionately nicknamed "Gerbil Gym," which offers cardio equipment such as treadmills and bikes.

And just like at home, leagues are a big draw for residents after a long day's work. Volleyball, basketball, soccer and even darts are available for organized competition. Club groups offer even more variety, with sports such as fencing and yoga on tap, in addition to countless other activities ranging from poi spinning to poker, from sign language to Science Sundays.

Even the science teams, whose visits often are fairly short compared with the stays of the permanent station staff, are driven to bring some recreation along on trips to the remote interior of the continent. Says Batdorff, "I'll never forget the science group who came in from deep field camp with a one-hole plastic golf set. 'It was the only thing keeping us sane,' they said, and looking at their wild eyes and bushy hair, I believed them."

During "Mainbody," the official name for the summer season, the variety of athletic options swells along with McMurdo's population (which grows to roughly 1,200 people, compared with the skeleton crew of around 200 who remain through the winter months). Daily high temperatures in December and January often climb into the low 30s, which opens up a host of outdoor options for residents who've been cooped up all winter.

On any given summer day, you might find a softball game in progress in one of the cargo yards, complete with blanket-wrapped spectators cheering on the action. And the action is intense -- with no grass on the field to slow down a grounder, it's a fast-paced game.

Rugby is a big deal, too, when summer rolls around. New Zealand's Scott Base is just a short truck ride from McMurdo over an adjacent mountain pass, and the Kiwis construct a rugby pitch each year that is host to the annual showdown between McMurdo's Mount Terror Rugby Club and the Scott Base Rugby Club. The New Zealand team usually dominates these matches, which is evidence of either its rugby skill and experience or the McMurdo team's gracious deference to its hosts. (Probably the former.)

Toward the end of summer, the McMurdo staff maps out a course for a full-distance marathon, an event that is open to anyone and everyone. Literally, everyone -- some of the true "locals", the Adelie penguins who inhabit the area, have been known to waddle across the finish line in between human entrants.

Casual sports get their due here, too, in the nice weather. Hiking, cross-country skiing and disc golf are popular, as are local inventions such as human-sled-tractor-pulls. There's even an outdoor curling rink currently under construction.

When McMurdo's residents watch the last plane of the season depart in March, they know there won't be another one landing until spring arrives in August. And sports and recreation take on an even more crucial role when winter's frigid darkness limits the outdoor options for the 200 essential staff still living at the station. "We live in dormitories. We see the same 200 faces every day. We do the same job for 60 hours a week," Batdorff says. "Breakfast, lunch and dinner are always at the same times and always in the same place. Especially in the winter, you can fall into 'Groundhog Day' living as we do."

Of course, necessity is the mother of invention, and creativity with the materials at hand is a way of life down there. Some of the most popular sports are masterpieces of improvisation, and according to Batdorff, it's common to find competitions in full swing in the unlikeliest of places. "Our vehicle maintenance facility built indoor horseshoe pits. The carpenters made us some cornhole sets. We've done costume badminton in the galley and putt-putt golf in the halls," she says. "It's amazing what people can do with palettes."

And even when the weather turns from autumn's merely unpleasant to winter's downright ridiculous, McMurdo's residents find ways to get some fresh air. "Nobody wants to walk up the hill from the Big Gym in minus-20 with ice, volcanic ash and 30-knot winds blasting in your face," Batdorff says. "But surprisingly, people grumble and do it anyway." She admits, however, that even for the most dedicated McMurdo athletes, sometimes the weather does factor into a game. In a land famous for katabatic winds that can howl down from high-elevation ice sheets with hurricane force, "Wind can make keeping track of your driver in Frisbee golf a real challenge," she says. And nobody underestimates the seriousness of safety in an environment like this. Even on a short hike, headlamps and radios are required gear for anyone venturing out into the permanent winter night.

Are you getting jealous of all the action down there? Well, grab your passport and pack a bag -- you can join the fun yourself. For a small group of adventuresome souls, this harsh environment isn't something to escape through sports -- it's part of the attraction. Since 2006, the Antarctic Ice Marathon & 100K Ultramarathon has lured competitors southward from all around the globe.

Irishman Richard Donovan, the race organizer and three-time winner of the 100K event, points out that while racers represent a wide range of ages and ability levels, the common thread for all is embracing the experience. And the race is a unique opportunity for athletes to experience the Antarctic with the reassurance of some local guidance. "A logistics company sets up a camp for the summer Antarctic months, and takes care of general logistical issues, weather forecasting, environmental compliance, accommodation, food, transport and so on," Donovan says.

That's a good thing, because in an environment like this, the devil is truly in the details. Marathons such as Boston and New York are massive events, but those organizers don't need to arrange snowmobile monitoring on the course or find ways to keep racers' drinks from freezing solid. And keeping track of racers as they pass through Ice Marathon checkpoints doesn't just offer split times -- it ensures they aren't lost in the wilderness.

For the 2010 event, Donovan is adding duathlon and triathlon formats to the running events. Racers will be able to try mountain biking and cross-country skiing along with the running disciplines, over courses that measure roughly 10 kilometers each (the standard for winter triathlon competitions). The field for this year's trial events will be limited to around 10 racers, but the numbers could grow in future years.

Although the Ice Marathon takes place in December during the Antarctic summer, the inland location on Union Glacier can mean colder temperatures than McMurdo's coastal climate. Winds can be even more of a problem than the cold, but the biggest challenge of racing on ice that never melts under a sun that never sets might be psychological. "Running on vast, open terrain, with no visual cues," Donovan says, "the distance can seem much, much longer, actually similar to running in a warm-weather desert."

Logistics and environmental challenges aside, "The thing I love most about competing in Antarctica is Antarctica itself," Donovan says. "There is no life where the race takes place. There are no bugs, no birds, no sound except the wind. You are left to your own thoughts in a vast wilderness. There are truly few places on Earth where you can experience such silence. And yet the scenery is fantastically beautiful and awe-inspiring. You feel small; you wonder why you're there and consider the 'madness' of it all. You get to run a race, make great friends and come back with a different sense of perspective on the world."

So if your boss strolls into your office one day and sends you on an assignment to the southernmost end of the Earth, or if you simply have the chance to travel there and experience a taste of the local competition, you can rest easy. As the old expression goes, people are the same the whole world 'round -- and even in such a foreign and faraway place, the saying clearly applies to sports, too.

Just remember to pack your parka.

Benjamin Roman is a freelance writer based in New York.