Running in a freezer

Michelle P. So

WHO runs inside an industrial freezer set at sub-10 degrees Celsius?!

Cebuano eye surgeon Pontenciano “Yong” Larrazabal III, 51, does, or did.

He did it to train for the Antarctic Ice Marathon that he ran on Dec. 13, 2019 and finished in six hours, well ahead of the cutoff time of 10 hours.

He has finished 59 marathons all over the world since 2007, but this was the first time he would be running on ice.

“Since I come from a tropical country, I had to research on running on ice. I cannot wear thick clothes because these would be heavy,” Larrazabal said on his guesting in Superbalita Cebu’s Facebook Live program “iSports Ta, Bay” on Dec. 20, 2019.

The freezer

He found the cold environment to test his Columbia running suit and spiked shoes—in an industrial freezer of the Castilex company in Mandaue City.

He set up a treadmill inside the freezer and then began to condition his mind and body for the greatest running challenge he set himself up for.

“I knew that the effort would be harder to run in snow. It would be like running on sand. So I had to train for better endurance, better stamina.”

Weighing 130 pounds, the 5’8”-tall doctor was the fittest he could be to run the Antarctic Ice Marathon.

“I tried out my gear, then I knew that I wouldn’t freeze in the ice marathon.” The training inside the Castilex freezer gave him the confidence to go to Antarctica.

He arrived in Punta Arenas, Chile on Dec. 10 together with 54 other runners from 17 countries for the pre-departure briefings.

There were three: one from the race director, another from doctors who briefed them on how to deal with medical issues in very high altitude, and the other from the campsite team.

Being there

On Dec. 12, the group flew by jet to the marathon location in Union Glacier, Antarctica.

“I was in awe of the area. The feeling was, very few people have gone to Antarctica and I am here). I was mesmerized by the place.”

The race was next day yet, but one couldn’t tell if night had passed. From mid-October to February, the sun is up all day in Antarctica.

The runners slept in uniform two-person tents where it was “plus 14 degrees.” Outside, sub-zero.

The lean accommodation was included in the US$18,900 registration fee of the Antarctic Ice Marathon.

The website describes the race as one that “presents a truly formidable and genuine Antarctic challenge with underfoot conditions comprising snow and ice throughout, an average windchill temperature of -20C, and the possibility of strong Katabatic winds to contend with. Furthermore, the event takes place at an altitude of 700 metres.”

The president and chairman of the Cebu Doctors Group of Hospitals had considered all this.

Dec. 13, race day, Larrazabal was in the best of spirits and prayerful. In his anti-freeze running gear, he was off.

The Ireland news website described the weather on race day as “windy, yet sunny” and that the runners made “two laps around the Union Glacier exploration camp just 965 km from the South Pole.”

Physical challenge

Larrazabal: “After 10 kilometers, I felt my head was going to explode because of the cold. I felt my eardrums about to pop because of the headwinds.”

“Dagan pa ka og snow, lubog pa gyud imong tiil, mura pa gyud ka og heavy weight because you are pushing against the wind.” (You run in snow, your feet are bogged down in it, you feel like a heavyweight.)

At 21 kilometers, he was worried about his body and whether he could make it to the finish line.

“Halfway, galisod gyud ko. I thought my blood pressure was going up. For the first time, the back of my head hurt.”

Because his ski mask was designed with perforations, “my eyes dried out because I felt the wind.”

But his experience had taught him to listen to his body and respond to his environment accordingly.

“When you are scared, you panic, your heartbeat increases.” So he kept calm and moved on.

He had prepared for this extreme running event; he had invested his time and resources in this ice marathon; he had never quit a marathon.

He re-centered himself and focused on his goal: to finish this freezing race.

When he looked around, he saw the other runners faring similarly. Sometimes he saw only snow, kilometers of snow. The course was flat.

He took one step at a time; he ran, walked, ran.

“After 30 kilometers, I got my confidence back.”

He finished strong, as runners say it. He did not have cramps during and after the race.

The daily 90-minute freezer runs had paid off.

Coveted medals

He got the finisher’s medal for his 60th marathon and another medal to recognize him as a member of the elusive Seven Continents Marathon Club.

Larrazabal is not the first Filipino to finish the Antarctic Ice Marathon 2019, but he is the first Cebuano to have done so.

All 55 runners of the Antarctic Ice Marathon 2019 (full and half distances) reached the finish line, but some missed the cutoff.

Roy Jorgen Svenningsen, 84, of Canada, finished the 42.2-km. race in over 11 hours.

Wiliam Hafferty of the United States reached the finish line first, at 03:34:12.

For Dr. Yong Larrazabal, 60 marathons are not enough. He’s going for 100.

He has completed the six world major marathons—New York (2007), Chicago (2008), Tokyo (2009), Berlin (2010), Boston (2018) and London (2018).

Finishing the Antarctic Ice Marathon only made him set up another goal, which is to run in the North Pole (“where bears outnumber humans”) in 2021.

Someone ready the Castilex freezer for Doctor Yong. (MPS)