Girl's Mission in Dad's Memory Takes Her to Antarctica Marathon

For many ambitious runners, completing a marathon on Antarctica is a lifelong dream come true with the added thrill of visiting the world's most isolated and undeveloped continent.

Chien-Liang Chou, 39, VP of engineering for a technology start-up in San Francisco, says choosing to come to the continent was the best choice he ever made.

"It's beautiful," he said, grinning as he came ashore on race day on one of a handful of zodiacs that brought runners ashore from the ship they stayed on.

But staging and completing this race comes with challenges each year. In 2001, for example, runners ran 422 laps around the ship when they were unable to land due to stormy weather. This year, Marathon Tours and Travel along with their partner, OneOcean Expeditions, was forced to reschedule the trip when the original ship that was to carry the runners to King George Island hit an iceberg.

For Vinecki, that meant giving up her spot in two competitions, the 2013 Sprint Freestyle U.S. Championships in Heavenly Valley, Calif., and the 2013 Junior World Championships in Valmalenco, Italy.

"I was disappointed," Vinecki said. "But then I thought, 'It's my dad and I have to do it for him.'"

Even after making the two-day journey across the often tumultuous Drake's Passage to get to Antarctica, there is no guarantee the marathon will go as planned.

Just the day before the scheduled start, high winds and below freezing temperatures delayed the race setup. When a break in the weather came, the race organizers scrambled to mark the course with the appropriate signage in a few short hours in order to make it back to the ship before dark.

"Doing anything in Antarctica requires risk," said Thom Gilligan, founder of Marathon Tours and Travel. Gilligan knows firsthand the challenges one can face when attempting to run the course, having coordinated each one of the marathons since he first conceived of the idea.

"All I do is set the stage," he said. "When the gun goes off, I have no control."

Upon arriving on the island, there's still the challenge of completing the race. The 26.2-mile course covers rough and slippery terrain. Hard, rugged ground chiseled with deep ruts from utility vehicles such as ATVs used by some of the scientific research stations along the course as well as icy patches and steep hills lined with wet and icy rocks make the course one of the most challenging many runners will traverse.

"I fell four times in the first 10 miles," said 27 year-old Ginger Howell, a Newton Massachusetts native who ran the course in 4:24:24. Sliding her shirt sleeve half way up her arm, Howell revealed a few cuts on her hand.

Gilligan, alongside four staff members and a crew of seven from OneOcean Expeditions, traversed the course on ATVs, making sure each runner was accounted for and attended to medical needs. This year, the Marathon Tours staff pulled two runners off the course, and, with the help from a doctor at Russia's Bellingshausen station, treated three runners for hypothermia.

As for Vinecki, she fell only once -- running down a hill as she headed for Chile's Frei station.

"It was tough, but I got right back up and kept going," she said with a smile.

Winter prevailed. As onlookers and volunteers crowded the sidelines, ready with extra jackets and gloves for the cold, damp runners, Vinckei crossed the finish line, raising her arm and pointing in the air -- a gesture Vinecki says she likes to make over every finish line she crosses.

It's a salutation to her father in the sky.

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