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Polar Bear Marathon 2013 Recap, Sunrise to Sunset, Churchill, Manitoba

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, Churchill, Manitoba

2013 Polar Bear Marathon Runners. Photo Credit: Harold Cooper

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.

The Race

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.

Polar Bear Marathon 2013 Start

Off we go into the sunrise for the 2013 Polar Bear Marathon! Photo Credit: Ron McPherson

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.

Polar Bear Marathon 2013 Sunset

Almost home as the sun sets over Churchill. Photo Credit: Ron McPherson

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.

Polar Bear Marathon Hug

Polar bear hugs were definitely welcome after 42 km in -40 C! Photo Credit: Harold Cooper

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!

Forever watchful polar bear, Churchill, Manitoba.

Were the polar bears watching us? We saw tracks. Photo Credit: Ron McPherson

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.

Tadoule Lake Polar Bear Marathon Runners

Tadoule Lake runners. A deservedly proud group! Photo Credit: Harold Cooper

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.

Related Stories:

Extreme Polar Bear Marathon in Churchill first of its kind, will help remote communities

Polar Bear Marathon, Churchill, Manitoba

An extreme adventure marathon.

If you think walking with polar bears at one of our lodges might get your heart racing, how about running with them? That’s just what 16 elite athletes from around the world will be doing in Churchill, Manitoba on November 20, 2012, when they compete in the Polar Bear Marathon at a distance of what could be 50 km.

Why would you want to run 50 km in -40 degree temperatures surrounded by polar bears, wolves and other less dangerous and assorted arctic wildlife?

Charity is the first reason, as the runners will be supporting the Native (First Nations people of Canada’s North) ministry work of Athletes in Action (AIA) Baseball camps. The second reason would obviously be the remote location and adventure and the third would be bragging rights to doing something that’s never been done before.

The run will support the work of the Athletes in Action (AIA) 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 work is based on volunteers and donations and this isolated group of people is served with contributions of sports equipment and various community events that let them know they are loved and not forgotten.

The remote location of Churchill is well known as the “Polar Bear Capital of the World” and Manitoba’s beluga whale watching hotspot. And besides being a birder’s paradise, it is also one of the best places in the world to view the Northern Lights, especially as winter approaches. The Polar Bear Marathon will take place just as the polar bears are getting ready to move out on to the ice for the winter, which of course will add more than ample adventure to the trek.

The adventure seekers and marathoners who have signed up to participate in the Polar Bear Marathon hail from Germany, the USA and both Steinbach and Churchill, Manitoba, and include Eric Alexander, an amazing athlete and mountain climber who not only climbed Mt. Everest, but also escorted and helped a blind climber summit Everest. Also among the participants are a marathoner from San Diego who has run in a 100 km event at the South Pole, another from Germany who has run in over 150 marathons, and an extreme event specialist.

Due to the harsh environment and the weather conditions, the Polar Bear Marathon will be run in tight groups as a “gentleman’s run” and runners will have to stay together due to the presence of polar bears, foxes, wolves and weather. Vehicles will accompany runners from both behind and in front for safety reasons and to serve as mobile aid stations. The exact route is yet to be determined.

Mother Polar Bear and Cubs - Dennis Fast

We'll be watching you.

“It looks like we’ll being going with four runners per group right now,” said organizer Albert Martens. “We might have room for a few more participants but they would have to contact me very soon. Right now we have four vehicles lined up to go with the runners. There will be a dinner with medal presentations and a polar bear slideshow presentation by Churchill Wild’s chief professional photographer Dennis Fast after the run. There will also be a German journalist covering the event.”

Every summer, Albert Martens flies into remote and isolated First Nation communities to do sports camps. These remote communities have included Pauingassi and Tadoule Lake in Manitoba and Poplar Hill in Ontario. Martens and up to eight volunteers help the children and youth with baseball and bible classes, while also serving the adults with Men’s Breakfasts, Ladies Teas, and other community events. All work and expenses are covered by personal donations and volunteer staff.

“Convinced of good support, reliable vehicles, and a small, slow group of runners, I have agreed to do this event and run my first marathon,” said Alexander on his Higher Summits Web site. “Running in the realm of the polar bear, I suspect I have a good shot at a world record. Well, this is not just a fun run to sightsee and avoid predation; this is a benefit for Athletes in Action and their commitment to helping the indigenous people of the far north. I will be speaking at a fund-raising dinner after the run (provided I survive the run) and am thereby pledging to help Athletes in Action. This is where you can help – please consider a donation to Athletes in Action to reach a group of people that you may never otherwise get to meet.”

The Dessert Night Fundraiser Alexander was speaking of will take place on November 22, 2012 at Canad Inns in Winnipeg in support of the AIA First Nations Ministry. Alexander will be the keynote speaker at the event, which will feature highlights and images of the Polar Bear Marathon along with the premier showing of the AIA – Grand Canyon running documentary.

A renowned speaker and the author of The Summit: Faith Beyond Everest’s Death Zone, Alexander is a person who embodies a picture of hope and possibility for all of us. For more information, please visit his Web site at www.HigherSummits.com. For additional information on the Polar Bear Marathon, please contact Albert Martens by phone at (204) 346-1345, via email at aemart@mts.net or visit his Web site at www.AlbertMartens.com. There are bound to be questions, and for good reason.

“It’s never been done before,” said Martens.

Related Story: Steinbach Man Organizing Polar Bear Marathon

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Winter Running - Albert Martens

There's just something exhilarating about a winter run!

Donations towards AIA First Nations Ministry may be made by issuing a cheque in USA or CDN currency  payable to Athletes in Action and mailed to Eric Alexander or Albert Martens at the addresses below.

Eric Alexander
Higher Summits
PO Box 6102
Vail, Colorado 81658 USA

Albert Martens
408-2nd Street,
Steinbach, Manitoba
Canada R5G 0V5

USA or CDN tax receipts will be issued to the donor.