Fulfilling a dream at the bottom of the world Tierra del Fuego lures local marathon man

March 25, 1997|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

"Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all."

-- Helen Keller When Mohamed Lehar first heard of Tierra del Fuego as a teen-ager growing up in Johannesburg, South Africa, he was -- at once -- captivated. If he was ever going to run away from the world, he told friends, it would be to the Land of Fire.

Last month, Lehar, now a U.S. citizen, the father of two and at 48 a research associate in the Department of Neurology at Johns Hopkins University's School of Medicine, didn't exactly run away -- but he did go to Tierra del Fuego on his way to running what was called "The Last Marathon" in Antarctica.

It was a modern day expedition.

"When I saw the ad in Runner's World for this marathon that included an overnight in Tierra del Fuego, I didn't think twice. I had to go," he said, recalling his journey over a warm cup of coffee in the hospital cafeteria. "It's the most beautiful part of the world I've ever been in."

But for a marathon?

Lehar laughed.

The course, he said, was an old, rutted dirt road on King George Island that thawed just enough race day to be a sea of mud. There were small streams crossing the winding path that connects research stations belonging to Russia, Yugoslavia, Chile and China.

Penguins and seals watched the marathoners from the sidelines, as the road turned into rock and then glacial ice. And a wicked, large brown and white shorebird called a skua made its own fun by pulling out the course flag markers and then diving directly at the competitors' heads.

The temperature ranged from 14 to 20 degrees during the day, and the wind howled across the course at 40 mph.

In fact, the weather was so bad on race day, Feb. 17, the competitors who had come on a second Russian ship could not make the trip to shore for several hours.

Lehar, with 15 others who had arrived earlier on another Russian ship, the Sergei Vavilov, was already on land and well into the marathon when the second group finally started under a second clock.

"The skuas were the meanest birds I've ever seen," said Lehar, who got off course three times thanks to the birds pulling out the course flags. "I ran an extra mile and a half, but I finished somewhere in the middle of the pack."

He ran the course in 5 hours, 21 minutes, despite being dressed in something approximating a ski suit and stopping to take photographs along the way.

"The terrain was not like the Marine Corps Marathon," he said happily. "There was snow the morning we ran, mud, hard surfaces, three or four streams ankle-deep. There was no one along the course to guide you. Sometimes it was just you, wilderness and penguins, as runners were spread out over several miles. Everyone wore balaclavas to cover their faces, and many wore hats, though I didn't. I hate hats. And there were no real water stops."

Runners were each allowed four bottles of water, which they placed at strategic spots along the course, and no one was allowed to throw away the empties.

"You were told not to leave anything behind, no trash," Lehar said.

The runners were men and women whose ages ranged from one teen-ager to a grandfather of 67. Each paid approximately $4,000 for the trip staged by Marathon Tours and Travel of Cambridge, Mass. There were people on the trip who had run marathons in every state in the United States. There were runners from Europe, Japan, New Zealand, Mexico and Australia.

And there was Lehar.

His friends, he said, wondered if he was crazy, but they helped him out by taking care of Adam, 7, and Sarah, 9, for the two weeks he was gone.

"One friend didn't even believe I was going until the day before I left," said Lehar, who has been running since his elementary school days in Johannesburg. "But without my friends taking care of my children, I couldn't have gone."

It took three days to fly to Ushuaia, the capital of Tierra del Fuego, and another two to sail across the Drake Passage to St. George Island. But it was worth it, Lehar said.

They were on the ship for nine days, visiting several research stations, hearing lectures on everything from Antarctic exploration and glaciers to whales and penguins and eventually setting foot on Antarctica, which only about 100,000 people have ever done.

"It was an absolutely wonderful trip," said Lehar, who came home with 30 rolls of film, a book about the history of Ushuaia and a large gold medal recognizing his Antarctica marathon accomplishment.

"My children each have a medal from my running in the Marine marathons hanging in their rooms," Lehar said. "But this one -- I'm going to frame the certificate, hang the medal around it and hang it out in the hallway where everyone can see it."

After all, it isn't every day that someone goes to Antarctica, the end of the world, to make a childhood dream come true.

Pub Date: 3/25/97

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