Guest Post by Albert Martens, Organizer, Polar Bear Marathon
Blisters and frostbites have healed, the clothes have been washed and dried, and all 13 of the competitors in the second annual Polar Bear Marathon that took place in Churchill, Manitoba on November 22, 2013, are now home safe and warm, including the Europeans!
As a bit of background, the Polar Bear Marathon is sponsored by Churchill Wild in support of Athletes in Action (AIA) work done in the Sayisi Dene First Nations community of Tadoule Lake, 250 km west of Churchill. AIA has done baseball camps in two different First Nations communities for the past eight years.
The idea for the Polar Bear Marathon came to me via another runner who suggested we do something in the North. It became a reality in 2012 for a number of reasons: to create a running experience in a uniquely extreme environment; to network both local and international runners and inspire them physically, emotionally and spiritually; (We do the runner’s shop-talk one-to one to get to know each other.) and most importantly, to raise awareness and help find funds for First Nations camp costs.
Thirteen competitors brave icy elements and -40 C temperatures
Thirteen competitors braved the icy elements and -40 C temperatures for the 2013 Polar Bear Marathon including myself, two international runners, four from greater Manitoba, three from the town of Churchill and three Dene First Nations runners from Tadoule Lake. All came to know about the Polar Bear Marathon in slightly different ways.
2013 Polar Bear Marathon Runners
- Albert Martens – Steinbach, Manitoba
- Sven Henkes – Berlin, Germany
- James Buhler – Winnipeg, Manitoa
- Philippe Simon – Winnipeg, Manitoba
- Simon Cutlip – Tadoule Lake, Manitoba
- Lawrence Flett – Churchill, Manitoba
- René Nüesch – Obfelden, Switzerland
- Rickie Cheekie – Tadoule Lake, Manitoba
- Cory Cheekie – Tadoule Lake, Manitoba
- Sara Scales – Churchill, Manitoba
- Lee Siemens – Altona, Manitoba
- Doug Gatey – Virden, Manitoba
- Danielle Sinclair – Churchill, Manitoba
Among those from greater Manitoba, I first met transplanted Quebecer Philippe Simon of the University of Manitoba and James Buhler of Wallace and Wallace Fence Corporation through my Run AIA Booth at the Manitoba Marathon. Lee Simons of Altona came up to help me years ago with the first trip to Tadoule Lake for a baseball camp. And Doug Gatey, a funeral director from Virden was here for the run last year. I got to know him through the Manitoba Runners’ Association.
The three Dene First Nations competitors, brothers Ricky and Corey Cheekie, and Simon Cutlip, were persuaded to run by their Band Councilor at Tadoule Lake. Danielle Sinclair of Parks Canada in Churchill found out about the run via the Churchill Administrative Office. Sara Scales of Churchill saw the run advertised locally, and Lawrence Flett, also of Churchill, saw the Polar Bear Marathon poster in town and was running in the event for the second time.
René Nüesch of Obfelden, Switzerland, learned about the race through a search for Polar Bear Marathon on Google and Sven Henkes of Berlin, Germany, saw an advertisement I ran in Runner’s World Magazine in Germany.
We sang O Canada the True North Strong and Free before the start, and followed it up with a prayer. Then a shot from a bear gun and we were off and running into the sunrise. The sun rose at 8:15 a.m. and arched over the horizon, creating an absolutely breathtaking and almost surreal picture throughout most of the day.
This year’s Polar Bear Marathon was about as extreme as it gets, especially running back into the town of Churchill against the wind. Beards iced up and our balaclavas froze to them, frostbite developed, the perspiration in our mitts froze and our outer pants iced up on the inside due to the moisture created. (Which then ran down our pants into our shoes and froze.)
I had already cut off the extra jeans I had brought along and put them on under my running gear. The cut-offs were a last minute improvisation in the restaurant just before the start of the race, when I realized the biting cold wind was going to be a huge challenge. My derriere was still cold even with four layers!
Some runners counted and weighed their clothing and found they were wearing over 30 items and carrying an extra 5-8 kg. My 25 items added up to an additional nine kg and that was dry! By the end of the run the under layers were all wet, so my weight was increasing as I went along.
By mid afternoon the sun began to set and the second half of the marathon was a real challenge. We were now running into a biting cold wind. My Smith Goggles totally fogged up and I couldn’t see anything, but I couldn’t run into the wind without them.
We were wearing normal running shoes, but the webbing at the top of the shoes allowed the cold air in, so I used duct tape to close up the shoes. At the 36 km mark the tape came off my left shoe and I had to find a quick solution. There was no tape to be found in my gear, but Lee Siemens gave me an extra sock. I pulled the sock over the shoe, but I couldn’t get it on all the way, so the end of the sock flopped around as I ran. The effect was a bit clown-like.
I started to complain to myself coming back, fighting the wind and the cold. I was getting tired and very low on energy, but the fantastic views of Hudson Bay overlooking the horizon to Nunavut kept me going.
I thought of bears only a few times. The bear concern was real because of the fresh tracks and because of what had transpired in Churchill during the tourist season. It was in the last 5-10 km that the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual aspect of this chilling run seemed to be reaching a breaking point, but by then I could see Churchill.
At the finish Mrs. Polar Bear, the mascot, gave each finisher a big “polar bear” hug. Lee, my running partner, had to get his balaclava off his beard so his face would not freeze. A few other runners had frostbite under their eyes and under their chin. We all wanted a challenge, but would not have wanted it any colder.
Sven Henkes from Berlin ran free and fast, coming in first with a time of 4:14. The second place runner was James Buhler from Winnipeg with a time of 4:19. In third place was Philippe Simon of Winnipeg and fourth place went to Simon Cutlip from Tadoule Lake. Sven said he had never run a tougher marathon in his life, with the second half of this event being his most difficult ever. Many other crazy stories were told by the runners.
One thing I appreciated was that the runners truly became friends and supported one another. We had a mix of very experienced runners and relative beginners and the veterans offered encouragement to the less experienced.
Sven Henkes already had a sub three hour marathon to his credit, and René Nüesch had done the Yukon Arctic Ultra, the coldest and most difficult Ultramarathon in the world at 300 miles in Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada. In contrast, I was really excited about the three First Nations runners that had come from Tadoule Lake to run in their first ever full marathon. Another young man from Churchill also decided to join us at the last minute, but he decided he’d had enough after seven km. He had no running shoes, just warm, heavy boots.
I was pleased to hear that Lawrence Flett from Churchill had encouraged Danielle Sinclair at the halfway point when she was thinking of quitting. Lawrence’s kind words were enough to get Danielle through the icy headwinds that faced us as we approached Churchill. Danielle was so pleased, full of joy and satisfaction when she came in. It makes for the ultimate experience when runners help each other through difficult times. All are rewarded at the end, having given their best and persuaded and pushed through some huge challenges.
And we all finished before sun set!
At the end of the race there was definitely some competition, even though I stressed the aspects of a fun run and the fact that we needed to stay together because of safety (polar bears). We did not see any polar bears, but as I mentioned previously, we did see fresh tracks, and that was a concern. The polar bear safety was definitely something people in Churchill were highly alert to, as a result of two very serious incidents that happened during the tourist season.
The Polar Bear Marathon is an Athletes In Action event under my mandate of Run AIA, and thus it is my avenue to connect with runners, connect runners to runners, and to mentor those who would feel the need to be mentored, emotionally and spiritually.
Since I also do summer camps on remote First Nation communities, the runners from Tadoule Lake were very special to me. We have been to Tadoule Lake for the past eight summers and have enjoyed getting to know these fine people. I felt a real connection to these men and I was excited for them to finish well.
The Polar Bear Marathon is really starting to come to life and it is with much gratitude that I look back at this run and how the competitors gelled together. Additionally, it was through one of the runners who joined us, Philippe Simon, my French-Canadian friend, that the French CBC took note and sent their film crew up to capture the event. From there it was picked up by CBC National and a number of additional news outlets.
The camaraderie, the new friendships, the learning experience of running in the extreme cold, and the fact that we had a mix of veteran and beginning runners, both international and national, including the First Nations runners from Tadoule Lake, made the second annual Polar Bear Marathon a very special experience. Many of the runners were already making plans for next year.
A sincere thank you goes out to all the competitors, to Athletes in Action, to Churchill Wild, to the press who braved the elements to bring the event to the world, and to the people of Churchill, for helping to make the race a success.
Fond memories such as this can never be replaced. They keep us all running well into the future, and carry us through those grueling final kilometers.
In races we’ve yet to run.
- Marathon in polar bear capital ran in -41 C, Nov. 28, 2013, Canadian Running, Scott Leitch
- The Polar Bear Marathon, StrideNation.com, Nov. 27, 2013, C.J. Schexnayder
- Churchill marathon pits runners against sub-Arctic cold, CBC Manitoba, Nov. 26, 2013, Cameron MacIntosh
- Polar Bear Marathon – Runners in Churchill, Manitoba are taking part in the second annual polar bear marathon, possibly the coldest 42.2 km on earth, CBC The National, Nov. 26, 2013, Cameron MacIntosh
- Des mordus de la course à pied repoussent leurs limites à Churchill (Buffs running pushing their limits in Churchill), CBC Radio, Nov. 26, 2013, Louis-Phillipe Leblanc
- Steinbach Man Conquers Churchill Marathon, Steinbach Online, Nov. 26. 2013, Shannon Dueck
- Beim “Polar Bear Marathon” sind Abenteurer unter sich (The “Polar Bear Marathon” adventurers are among themselves), Badische Zeitung, Nov. 23, 2013
- -41 C windchill, polar bear alerts: This isn’t your average marathon, Globe and Mail, Nov. 22, 2013, Birgit-Cathrin Duval
- The only marathon where you have to dodge polar bears, Winnipeg Sun, Sept. 30, 2013, Doug Lunney