The 4th annual Polar Bear Marathon took place in Churchill, Manitoba on November 21, 2015. The weather had been quite miserable on the days leading up to the event, with flights canceled as late as November 19. My wife Edna and I and several other Polar Bear Marathon runners were scheduled to fly to Churchill from Winnipeg on November 20, and we did arrive in Churchill by noon the day before the marathon.
There was some concern about the polar bears that were still present in the area. Running in the north at this time of year also had us watching the weather maps quite closely. We were ecstatic to see a beautiful clear sky in the morning, with little wind and balmy temperatures of -23 Celsius. The conditions for a great start looked really good. The only handicap seemed to be the skating rink condition of the road we were running on.
The start was very special. A three-man film team (from BC and California), complete with a drone, were present to film the marathon. The Duke of Marlborough school children were out at 8:00 a.m. to sing O Canada in four languages. How special it was to have the parents bring out the kids that early on a Saturday to sing in the cold. Great appreciation goes out to their teacher, Joanne Stover.
And off we went! Each runner was assigned to a numbered escort vehicle. We usually assign two runners to a vehicle and each vehicle is prepared with a bear watcher with a gun. This vehicle also serves as a mobile aid station for those runners, with items like energy food and drink.
Fifteen minutes into the run we witnessed a gorgeous red sunrise (with red Sundogs on each side) and we were running toward that red warmth on the horizon. The road became a fantastic vantage/lookout point as we passed the airport turn off at km 7. The view of the Hudson Bay was very beautiful as the road sloped downwards towards it, approaching the Polar Bear Alley at km 8. The route was the one and only winding, curvy road to the Study Centre some 23 km from Churchill. The road was extremely icy and the runners begin to feel the new muscles that are needed to run on a “skating rink.”
The bears were very close to the runners, watching us as if they were cheering us on. Little did we know they were only about 10-20 metres away. When I left for the run in the morning I had to go get something from an escort vehicle, and as I opened the door I saw a gun. That’s when it really sank in. We would be running with polar bears.
What was absolutely special about this year’s Polar Bear Marathon was the participation of eight runners from Tadoule Lake. And both the marathon and half-marathon distances were “won” by Tadoule Lake runners! The Chief of Tadoule Lake, Ernie Bussidor, and two other Band Councilors attended and supported the whole running event.
The distance was measured inaccurately a bit (44.7 km instead of 42.195 km). Simon Cutlip finished the full marathon in 4.35 hours and the slowest runner finished in 7.28 hours. Stephanie Thorassie was in first at 2.30 hours in the Half Marathon. We had two DNFs in the full marathon and two DNFs in the half-marathon. The glossy, very icy road reduced the runner’s times by quite a bit.
Five runners, Chief Ernie Bussidor and Councilor Jimmy Clipping closed our Awards Dinner with two drumming pieces. It was very special to see the mayor of Churchill together with Tadoule Lake Chief Bussidor giving greetings at the Awards Dinner. This was like a reconciliation/reunification moment, considering the very painful and difficult 18 years the Dene people experienced in Churchill from 1956-1973 before the Sayisi Dene established their new and present day home at Tadoule Lake.
Renowned speaker, author, elite athlete and climber Eric Alexander of Higher Summits gave a wonderful talk at a special Dessert Night in Winnipeg on November 24 in support of Athletes in Action First Nation community work, and had some great stories to tell. The author of The Summit: Faith beyond Everest’s Death Zone, Eric has climbed the highest mountains on six continents with a handicapped climber, and took Eric Weihenmeyer, a blind climber to the summit of Mt. Everest.
Eric has led expeditions through Europe, North and South America, the Himalayas and other mountainous areas of the globe. His Blind Strength 2014 climb took two wounded blind warriors up Mt. Denali, Alaska – North America’s highest peak. Eric was very entertaining and we greatly appreciated having him as both a participant and a guest speaker at this year’s Polar Bear Marathon.
Maybe there will be other sports events like the Polar Bear Marathon to continue in healing these two communities.
I want to thank everyone wholeheartedly for your great help and encouragement with the 2015 Polar Bear Marathon. It was a great success! The weather was good, all the runners enjoyed it very much and some indicated they would be coming back to run again.
A running documentary is going to be produced and if you are interested in it please let me know. It will not be ready for a while because they have to do a “marathon-time” of editing and producing. Maybe a trailer will be out by end of this year.
I’d like to give a special mention of the many helpers at the 2015 Polar Bear Marathon including: Gord Martens; Louise Lawrie and the Churchill Ladies Club; Joanne Stover and the 15 Duke of Marlborough Singers; The Town of Churchill – Mayor Spence and worker Erika; The Tundra Inn – Belinda; Wings over Kississing Vehicle and Matt Dehaene and Claudia; our main sponsor Churchill Wild and the use of their vehicle and gifts; the Tadoule Lake runners and all other runners from out of town; The Gypsy’s Café; Grant McNeil and the Study Centre; the film team – John Warkentin, Jake Bergen and Richard Szmutko; the Seaport Hotel – Lawreen; Brett Wlock – Polar Bear Alert; The Ambulance – Dan Dimusio; The RCMP; Lazy Bear Lodge – Tania and Adam; the Alliance Church; all the vehicle escort drivers; Garry Koop – for his presentation; Calm Air; Printall – Glen Davies; Gorp – Josh Dyck; Keith McDougall; and all the others I forgot to mention here.
Thanks again to all for your great role in the success of the Polar Bear Marathon. Money was raised for Athletes in Action and it was so special to have the Tadoule Lake community represented and to have their runners perform so well.
We’re already looking forward to Polar Bear Marathon 2016!