by Albert Martens with photos by Kelly Pollock of Churchill, Manitoba
On November 22, 2014 at 8 a.m. 14 runners gathered in front of Gypsy’s Café in Churchill, Manitoba. After a prayer and “Oh Canada” the bundled-up-multi-layered runners were off into the east, watching the fiery sun slowly emerge on the distant horizon. I had planned to run the half marathon, but I instead opted to support a few of the struggling runners. By 8:30 the runners were silhouetted in the big red rising sun for a short and cold Saturday.
This was the third Polar Bear Marathon in Churchill. Five runners also decided to attempt the Ultra Marathon of 50 km, despite the -26⁰ Celsius temperature and fairly strong winds. The route was simple. There are not too many choices when you run this kind of distance in Churchill.
We started out running along the paved road about 6.5 km to the airport turnoff. After that we turned on the fairly wide ice-gravel road that meanders gently to the right, than a bit up and down following the coastline of Hudson Bay. What a gorgeous view of the rough ice on Hudson Bay!
Snow-covered rocks, large and small (but big enough for a Polar Bear to hide behind!) were the sights on both sides of the road. In addition, there were many small evergreen trees, all one-sided with branches only on the south side. The “True North Strong” Arctic winds had stripped the trees to look like — as my running friend from San Diego likes to call them — Charlie Brown trees. My wife says the trees could be half-price Christmas trees that you put into the corner of your living room for Christmas.
Back to running!
Each runner was assigned a vehicle escort with energy food, drink and fruit, and a bear watcher with a gun, to protect them from polar bears. The road was very icy and slick, but only one runner used running shoes with spikes. There was a bear about 400 meters from us, and five other bears lingering around the coast on Cape Churchill near town.
The five Ultra runners were heading for the Study Centre one way (turn around point of 23.5 km) and then back to Churchill. In the town Churchill these runners had to make two larger laps of three km around the blocks to complete the 50 km. Four of the five Ultra runners finished with “mild” frost bite on their faces. Mild is relative in this case, because each of the runners was more proud of their frosty injuries than their medal. They all had shiny faces, layered with ointment as they boarded the plane.
The Half Marathon runners did much better, as they ran out to the 21.1 km marker with the northwest wind at their backs. Two of the full marathon runners had a DNF due to the cold and their not having sufficient clothing protection. Our fastest marathon runner was Gerald McIvor from Cross Lake, Manitoba with a time of 4 hours and 25 minutes. Gerald had run in the Boston Marathon previously. The faster you ran in the Polar Bear Marathon the better off you were able to maintain body heat. The slower you ran the more clothing layers you had to have to keep from freezing up.
Fifty km in -26⁰ with strong winds (wind-chill of -42⁰) is a long and tough “fresh air” experience.
2014 Polar Bear Marathon Runners and their Experience
1. Rene Neeusch: (Zurich, Switzerland) Swiss Ironman, 3x Ironman, Tri-Alaska Ultra (300 Miles, 100-mile bike, 100-mile run, 100 km X-country ski), 800-mile run in Alaska.
2. Paul Ruest: (Basel, Switzerland) Twenty-three marathons including a very special one on the ice of Lake Baikal, Siberia.
3. Ricky Fontaine: (Uashat Mak Mani-Utenam, Quebec, Canada) 60 marathons, Yukon Relay Race, Marathon des Sables and Gobi Desert races. Quebec First Nations runner.
4. Doug Gatey: (Virden, Manitoba, Canada) Forty-three marathons, three Polar Bear Marathons. His first Ultra marathon in Churchill this year.
5. Sara Scales: (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada) 2nd Polar Bear Half Marathon, Two Manitoba Half Marathons. Was filmed and featured for an OLN TV documentary to be shown in 2015.
6. Matt Dehaene: (Flin Flon, Manitoba, Canada) Several full marathons, Marathon des Sables, Death Race, cycled from Manitoba to Ushuaia, Argentina.
7. Ricky Cheekie and Simon Cutlip: (Tadoule Lake, Manitoba, Canada) Full marathon runners.
8. Ian and Cynthia Lau: (Churchill, Manitoba, Canada) Manitoba Half Marathon runners.
9. Lawrence Flett: (Churchill, Manitoba, Canada) Full marathon runner.
10. Phil Simon: (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada) U of M, PhD student, seven Full marathons, Marathon des Sables, Ultra Polar Bear Marathon, Ironman in Mount-Tremblant, Quebec.
11. Gerald McIvor (Cross Lake, Manitoba, Canada) Had previously run in Boston Marathon.
There were some great perks in Polar Bear Marathon experience this year. There was a fantastic display of the Aurora Borealis; seeing a real polar bear in its natural habitat from three meters away (we were in a vehicle of course); the Duke of Marlborough Churchill children singing for us at the Awards Dinner; a tour of the Study Centre, the camaraderie of the runners as friendships grew; and meeting several Inuit families from Igloolik Lake, Nunavut. The young children had never seen trees before. Igloolik Lake is about a three hour flight (1000 km) north of Churchill.
The Polar Bear Marathon is always unique, being run in the small exclusive “crazy” cold setting of Churchill, Manitoba, directly in the heart of polar bear country. It supports the First Nations work we do in Tadoule Lake, Pauingassi and Poplar Hill but it is and international event in which runners have come to us from Germany, Switzerland, USA, Quebec and other provinces. It has also welcomed several First Nation runners. A public event in Churchill, the Polar Bear Marathon is organized by myself (Albert Martens) and Athletes in Action (AIA) and is sponsored by Churchill Wild in support of the AIA First Nations ministry work.
Already looking forward to next year!