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Ready to run the Antarctic Marathon

Updated: May 1, 2013 2:10PM



Earlier this week, while you and I were shuffling through our daily routines, Brendan Cournane was running through the streets of Buenos Aires — temperature in the 70s, though humid and the pavement more broken up than in Chicago.

On Tuesday, while we sighed over our morning coffee, Cournane, 59, boarded the Vavolov, a converted Russian trawler, for the journey from Ushuaia, at the southern tip of Patagonia, across the Drake Passage, to King George Island, in the Southern Shetland Islands, where he is scheduled to run in the Antarctic Marathon on Saturday.

Like the commutes for us proles, that run will also be something of a routine, for him.

“I’ve run a total of 86 marathons in all 50 states and six continents,” said Cournane, who finished 11 Chicago Marathons. “I’ve run on the Great Wall of China, at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro. In November, I ran the Solar Eclipse Marathon in Australia.”

He has run a dozen marathons in Europe — in London, Rome, Stockholm. He’s even run in the Antarctic Marathon before, though he didn’t finish.

“I went there in 2007 but had a medical reaction at Mile 18, wasn’t able to complete the race,” he said, before he left on his trip. The marathon, in its 14th year, was started by a travel agency that sells packages to the race. The trip costs $8,000 and sells out years in advance — the next available slot is in 2017 — so Cournane had to wait until now for his attempt to add a seventh continent. “This has been a long process for me.”

The average person, huffing from L stop to office, might wonder why someone would go to all that trouble to run 26.2 miles at the bottom of the world. Why does he do it?

“It’s all internal, a way of seeking my own internal self,” he replied. “If I don’t continue to move, I stagnate. I want something else to stay active, to keep me engaged. It keeps my mind fresh, keeps my body fresh. That’s the way I want to live my life.”

Cournane is a professional running coach, his website, coachbrendan.com, topped with a yellow band with a red chili pepper — reminiscent of the yellow shorts, spangled with red chili peppers, he wears in races.

“I want my runners to see me on the path in case they have trouble,” he said.

And it’s something of a brand? I asked.

“It’s bright, noticeable, and a bit funky.”

If you look at Cournane, you might be surprised, as I was, to see he is not the gaunt body type one might associate with running four score plus marathons. He’s a beefy guy.

“Not all marathoners are built like the Kenyans who win the races,” Cournane said. “Runners come in all shapes and sizes.”

His weight fluctuates, he said, depending on whether he is recovering from an injury. He said that rather than discouraging his clients, his heft serves to inspire them.

“Seeing someone with my body type gives hope to the everyday runner who needs more motivation and support,” he said. “I would hope that readers on the fence would think, ‘If he can do it, I can do it.’ Just because you’re in your 40s or 50s or beyond, doesn’t mean you have to stop having goals or dreams to achieve those goals.”

Clients who dream of running a marathon but think they can’t do it learn otherwise: “26.2 miles seems impossible, at first,” he said. “You build endurance first, and then it seems improbable, then inevitable.”

The Antarctic Marathon is different than most — there are few onlookers, for starters — just the occasional penguin or seal.

A graduate of Brother Rice High School, Cournane went to college and law school at Loyola but found more satisfaction in running and training others to run than in practicing law.

“I found through running, focus, discipline, serenity,” he said, “found a way to keep balance in life, and find inner calmness.”
The Antarctic race requires a bit more clothing than most marathons: two or three layers on top and bottom, plus a balaclava.

“This is the end of the summer season down there, so I’m expecting temperatures in the 20s and low 30s,” he said. “But the wind can be pretty nasty.”

Like most runners, he has his traditions — a handful of Cheerios before the race, and a Jolly Rancher or two to celebrate afterward.

Of course, there is always another challenge. The Antarctic Marathon isn’t even the only one on that frozen continent. Those checking it off might consider attempting the Antarctic Ice Marathon, a thousand miles south of King George Island, at the base of the Ellsworth Mountains — elevation 2,000 feet and a constant wind chill of 5 below zero, run on ice, as opposed to the luxurious frozen gravel roads of the Antarctic Marathon.

And for those tossing off that challenge, there’s a 100K — 62.1 mile — version, the “Antarctic 100K Ultra Race.” Which brings to mind Robert Browning’s famous line, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”



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