Writer // Janelle Morrison Photography // Submitted and Laura Arick
Imagine running a 13-mile course in crisp temperatures between 15 F and 34 F minus the wind chill and against 35 mph winds while maintaining your footing along the muddy terrain, all for the sake of saying you “did it.” You may ask why someone would aspire to complete such an onerous task voluntarily. Carmel residents Dr. Matthew and Holly Abbott share why they chose to make the voyage to Antarctica and what they have taken away from this unique and truly awesome experience only a small percentage of humans are willing and able to accomplish.
When they’re not training for half-marathons, Matthew is a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital and Holly owns her own consulting business evaluating international transcripts for prospective student-athletes for NCAA Division I and II sports. The couple originally met in the fourth grade in Mishawaka, near South Bend, Indiana, where they are originally from.
Holly has been an avid runner since grade school, and Matt grew up playing soccer but attributes his half-marathon running to his wife’s affinity for the sport.
“I ran my first half-marathon 13 years ago when we ran the [Indy] Mini Marathon together,” Matt said. “After running the Mini, I was like, ‘Why am I doing this?’ I still exercise, but I’m not a big runner. Holly had this Antarctica trip planned before our daughter was born, and when she became pregnant, that kind of threw a wrench in her running it [the Antarctica Half-Marathon]. When she was able to do it, I decided to go with her, and so I trained and lost 35 pounds.”
Holly found early on in her running career that half-marathons were the right distance for her physically.
“I ran in high school and college, and while I was doing my master’s work at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, half-marathons were not really popular—this was in 2005. I had always wanted to run a marathon, it was on my bucket list, so I trained and ran the Richmond Half-Marathon and ended up getting a stress fracture in my foot. Fast forward, when I moved back to Indiana, Matt and I were dating, and I told him that he should run the [Indy] Mini with me and that it would be so much fun and he would love it.”
Matt interjected, “And I didn’t.”
Holly laughed and continued, “I realized that the half-marathon distance was a good distance for me. I could train for it and enjoy it, so that’s when my love for the half-marathon began.”
While Matt was completing his residency at IU, Holly was working for the NCAA and was looking for a challenge and something to do. She came up with the idea to run a marathon in every state. Holly ran a half-marathon in every state and in Washington, D.C., over a period of three years.
“My goal was to finish by age 30,” she shared. “I ended up finishing the day before I turned 31 and before he [Matt] finished residency. I finished in Tucson, Arizona. It was a way to see the country and places that I never thought that I would go [to] and meet new people.”
After he finished his residency, Matt moved on to fellowship in Dallas, Texas, and Holly stayed here in Indiana. During that time, she would run half-marathons in Texas.
“I’ve been to some really fun places, like Boise, Idaho,” she said. “Boise is one of my favorite places because it was so beautiful. I’ve done Kauai, Anchorage—which were fun—and one of my favorites was New York City. I took my mom, aunt and great-aunt and made a girls’ trip out of it. I ran through Central Park and Times Square, and we finished where the Twin Towers used to stand. It meant a lot because you are running through history.”
Once she had checked off all the states, Holly decided to run in all of Canada.
“I’ve run in eight providences,” she said. “I have only Newfoundland and Labrador and the three territories, and then I’ll be done with that. I originally signed up for Antarctica in 2012, and there was a five-year waiting list at that time. I was slated to run with a friend of mine in 2017. Well, Matt and I were going through IVF [in vitro fertilization], and our daughter, Harper, was born on March 3, 2017. I was supposed to be running in Antarctica on March 15. Clearly, that was not happening, so the organization, Marathon Tours & Travel, let me defer for two years, and that’s when Matt decided to come with me. I told him that he was going to have to run it, though.”
Holly expressed pride in her husband’s commitment to his training for the Antarctica Half-Marathon, noting that because of his profession, it is difficult for him to take time out for himself.
“He’s always so busy helping other people, so it was nice for him to focus on getting healthier,” Holly said. “I’m also proud of how well he did in Antarctica. That was the hardest half-marathon that I’ve ever ran, and I’ve done at least 75.”
When asked how the couple trained beforehand, each of them shared their personal challenges.
“First of all, I knew I needed to lose some weight, so this was a good time to do it,” Matt shared. “I set up a [training] regimen where I was running three times a week and working out twice a week. I watched my calories. Once I was in shape and was much lighter, and having the athletic gene in me, I knew that I was going to do OK in the race, but more than that, I just wanted to be able to finish.”
While Holly was going through IVF, she was not permitted to run for a period of two years.
“Once I was given the ‘OK’ to start running, my first run was only 30 seconds long. I had no base. I made a goal to run a half-marathon in one year. In June of 2018, I ran the Winnipeg Half-Marathon. From there, I had less than a year to train for Antarctica. That’s how long it took for me to get up to a decent half-marathon time.”
This past March, Matt and Holly embarked on the first leg of their voyage to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where they would meet with their fellow runners and organizers from the Marathon Tours & Travel group. The group took a flight to Ushuaia in the province of Tierra del Fuego, the world’s southernmost city. From there, the group boarded a Russian vessel for departure to King George’s Island off the coast of Antarctica. The course on King George’s Island has marked gravel roads that connect scientific research bases of Uruguay, Chile, China and Russia.
Matt and Holly completed their most difficult half-marathon to date on March 17, 2019. It was the 20th anniversary of this annual race.
“We were running in 35 mph headwinds, a 10-minute hailstorm during the race and ankle-deep mud in parts of this trail race,” Holly said. “Literally, there wasn’t a flat part of the race the entire course. Usually, when you run this course, you start out at a Russian research base and run out to the Uruguayan base, which is the hilly part, and you run back. Then you do a loop through the Chilean base to the Chinese base, which is the flat part of the race course. Three weeks prior to the race, the course had to be changed because, for whatever reason, the Chileans are mad at Canada and the vessel that we sailed in on is a Russian-made vessel but is owned by a Canadian tour company called One Ocean Expeditions. The Chileans told the tour that we could not run through their base to the Chinese base.”
“Running uphill against the wind was hard,” Matt said. “And the hailstorm was a good time. Essentially, there was a 2 ½-mile stretch where we were running two huge hills.”
Holly added, “There was literally no relief. It was brutal and the hardest course I’ve ever run. You started the race running on an incline. For me, with the amount of travel and preparation it took to get down there and back, I was like, ‘I’ve waited seven years to do this, I’m going to finish even if I have to walk the entire race.’ Barring a bone sticking out of my leg, I was going to finish.”
Matt finished second overall with a time of 2:00:36, and Holly finished third overall and first-place female with a time of 2:01:29, beating out over 76 runners from all over the world.
After surviving the race, the runners get to take some time exploring the continent, viewing up close the wildlife and terrain.
“We got to go out on Zodiacs and explore the channels and bays,” Holly shared. “We saw humpback whales, minke whales and different types of penguins. The seals were laying around sunning themselves.”
While looking at their recently received medals from the Antarctica Half-Marathon, the couple said they are looking forward to telling their daughter about this adventure and any future excursions one day.
“I’m trying to convince him [Matt] to run five other continents with me,” Holly said. “If you’re part of the Seven Continents Club, which is part of Marathon Tours, you have to run a marathon or half-marathon on every continent.”
Matt shared that he does enjoy the travel aspect of the half-marathons, even if running is not his top-ranked sport.
“I think it is good to have experienced the world,” he said. “You get a different sense of the world when you travel. I think it is good to get out [of your bubble] and see the way the rest of the world lives.”
Though the couple admits that training for half-marathons means juggling around work and family schedules, both Matt and Holly emphasized that having an accountability partner and a training plan helps them properly prepare for these races.
“The hardest part is getting motivated, but once you get to that point and you set a plan, a goal and a timeline, you can do it,” Matt said. “You just have to get off your butt and start running.”
For more information on Marathon Tours and Travel, visit marathontours.com.