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

ABC News
Girl's Mission in Dad's Memory Takes Her to Antarctica Marathon
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Girl's Mission in Dad's Memory Takes Her to Antarctica Marathon (ABC News)

Winter Vinecki is a girl on a mission, one that's taken her to one of the most forbidding places on the planet: Antarctica.

She started competing in triathlons when she was 5 years old, finished her first Olympic distance triathlon by age 9, and now, at 14, the Salem, Ore., native has acquired one more accolade -- she's the youngest person ever to complete a marathon on Antarctica.

Since last January, she has also done North America and Africa, and is determined to be the youngest person ever to conquer all seven continents in a single year. She has four continents to go before the end of December, and she plans to travel to Peru in June to conquer South America in the Inca Trail Marathon.

But Vinecki, a tri-athlete and youth aerial skier, may have already put her toughest test behind her when she traveled to Antarctica, the world's driest, windiest, and iciest continent as part of a world marathon tour she developed to spread awareness and raise money for prostate cancer.

"I originally had the idea to do a marathon on all seven continents when I was sitting on my couch looking through the Guinness Book of World Records and I came across the youngest person to do a marathon on all seven continents," Vinecki told ABC News. "I immediately pointed in that book and told my mom I wanted this record for my dad and all the men and families affected by prostate cancer."

Vinecki's father, Michael Vinecki, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2008 and died in March 2009. Vinecki, who was already a competitive runner completing her first 10k when she was 8, formed Team Winter, a non-profit organization dedicated to raising money for a cure to prostate cancer.

Since then, the organization, which includes Vinecki, her mother, Dawn Estelle, as well as a board of directors, has raised more than $400,000.

She has done all this while also training with Fly Freestyle, a youth Olympic development team for aerial skiing in Park City, Utah, in the hopes of qualifying for the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Vinecki said the reward so far for finishing a marathon on each continent is not just about a medal and an official time.

"The main goal is to take my dad to the places he never got to go to and also to spread prostate cancer awareness," Vinecki said.

Despite Vinecki's youth, she is not the only young person who had a goal to finish a marathon on Antarctica. Sara Oliphant from the United States was 15 years old when she completed the Antarctica Ice Marathon held by the South Pole, according race director Richard Donovan.

Likewise, 10-year-old Nikolas Toocheck, who is also attempting to run a marathon on every continent to raise money for Operation Warm, a charity created by his grandfather, recently attempted to complete The White Continent Marathon, but due to inclement weather only finished part of the race on Antarctica, completing the remaining mileage on Chile.

Vinecki completed the Antarctica Marathon put on March 30 by the Boston-based company Marathon Tours and Travel in 4:49:45, coming in third place for the women and placing 11th out of 60 runners who completed the marathon that day.

The Antarctica Marathon, first put on by Marathon Tours and Travel in 1995, runs along the shoreline of King George Island off of Maxwell Bay and passes by four international research stations, including Russia's Bellingshausen station and Chile's Frei station.

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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