How do you top getting married in the Chicago Marathon? You spend your honeymoon hiking with polar bears, of course.
That’s exactly what Stephanie Reinhart and Mark Jockel did after becoming the first couple ever to tie the knot in the Chicago race, which is one of the six World Marathon Majors.
“We’re cold weather people,” said Stephanie. “Most people get out of Chicago in the winter and they go someplace really warm. We go somewhere that is even colder and even snowier.”
“The WGN radio people were asking us if we were going somewhere on a beach, someplace warm,” said Mark. “And we said no, we’re going on a hike with polar bears. And they said, ‘You’re getting married in the marathon, then running in the marathon, and then going to Hudson Bay to go hang out with polar bears?'” And I said ‘Yeah!'”
“That just seemed to add to the story, “said Mark.
A story of romance that began in a running group at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday mornings in Chicago; wound its way through a marathon (with a stop to get married); included two television appearances; and culminated with a honeymoon hiking with polar bears on the wild and rugged Hudson Bay coast.
Stephanie, a 35-year-old lawyer with the federal government, competed in track, cross-country and swimming while growing up, but didn’t start running in marathons until 2012, and she ran in her first four-month marathon training program by herself. In 2013 she decided to prepare for the marathon by running in a group on Saturday mornings. She was moved into a faster-paced group after a few training sessions, and as often happens in running clubs, she found someone she could run comfortably alongside at her own pace — Mark Jockel.
A 46-year old research and development designer for a medical device company, Mark was active in running and cycling while growing up, and started running in marathons in 2000. The Chicago Marathon was his 14th. As fate would have it however, his experience and pace would align perfectly with that of Stephanie’s.
“Every Saturday we ran next to each other,” said Stephanie. “And we just kind of got to know each other over the course of the summer, little by little. Thirty minutes one Saturday, 30 minutes the next Saturday. We’d talk to each other as we ran. And we’d go to brunches with the group.”
The couple started officially dating just after Thanksgiving in 2013, were engaged a year later, and set the marriage date for October 11, 2015 — in the middle of the Chicago Marathon. Actually, it was eight miles into the marathon, near the home where the couple lives.
“Our families thought we were crazy,” said Stephanie.
The couple appeared on TV during the race, as Channel 5 NBC broke away from their actual marathon running coverage to show the wedding. Another newscast covered their reception later that evening.
“When we arrived at the eight-mile mark for the ceremony, the newscasters were waiting,” said Stephanie. “They told us to stand by until we go live.”
Of course they did, and after the special stop to say their vows Mark and Stephanie ran another 14 miles to the finish and finished with exactly the same 5 1/2-hour times, much slower than their usual 3 1/2-hours.
“We were the first couple to get married in the Chicago Marathon,” said Mark. “That we know of. People were taking lots of pictures on their smart phones and saying ‘We just saw you on TV getting married!'”
After the race the marathon organizers presented the couple with custom-designed bibs, one that said bride and another that said groom, which they proudly wore to their reception later in the evening while thinking about their upcoming honeymoon adventure with the polar bears.
“It had always been my dream to see polar bears,” said Stephanie. “And one of our very first conversations after we started to get to know each other while running, was about polar bears. I showed Mark the pictures of one of the polar bear tours in Churchill and really, really wanted to go see them. When we decided to plan our honeymoon the polar bears were at the top of the list.
“I showed Mark a picture of one of those big trains that sits on the tundra. People kind of live in them and they go out on the tundra buggies, kind of a permanent station out there. And it’s a lot of being sedentary. You just sit there, which is great if you’re a professional photographer, if you’re elderly, or if you’re not able to move very well. But that didn’t really fit for us, because we’re runners. We’re very active. And we’re not very good photographers. We then started looking at other options and we thought about staying in town and taking tundra buggies out every day.
“Then we stumbled on Churchill Wild while doing an Internet search about how you could see polar bears. When we saw that you could go out and walk among the bears every day we knew immediately that was the trip for us.”
“It sounded awesome,” said Mark.
“We arrived on the first of two planes,” said Stephanie. “On the little prop plane that takes you from Churchill to the lodge. And within 30 minutes there were bears. They walked right up to the lodge. The second plane hadn’t even landed yet and a female came right up to the compound. She was there for two or three days, very interested in us. She was amazing.
“Every day we took lots of hikes. One day was a really long hike. Other days were somewhat shorter, but we always saw bears. Dymond Lake seemed really popular with the bears. Often we only had to walk just outside the compound and across the lake and there they were.
“There was a really big male that we saw. They estimated he weighed around 1,100 pounds. He was beautiful. Very clean. Very white. He walked right over to us a few times over the span of two days. It seemed like he really wanted to play with us. He got quite close to us.
“And at one point there was a female that we went to go over and see, and she walked up to us. And then we realized there was a second female behind us. And they were circling around our group. And then they ran off and chased each other for a while.”
“We also got to see a polar bear that had been in the polar bear jail getting transferred by helicopter,” said Mark. “Initially he was far away, but he veered and flew right over us.”
Was the couple frightened by being so close to polar bears, on the ground?
“Neither of us felt nervous at all,” said Stephanie. “We never felt unsafe. Our guides, Andy and Derek, were amazing. They were so calming. And they were knowledgeable. It was just really exciting to be that close to the bears, to know that you were just out there walking with them.
“The guides gave us a really great presentation on polar bears. And on the land, its history, the culture and the people who have lived there for centuries. We learned a lot more than we expected to learn. We kind of figured it would just be about bears, but it was really a perspective on the human side of the area too. It’s so remote you don’t really think about people living there, or surviving there.”
And it wasn’t just the bears and the guides that made the experience extra special for the couple.
“Our group was phenomenal,” said Stephanie. “There were a lot of really interesting people from all over the world. And we’ve all stayed in touch. We’ve got an email group. We’ll be seeing one of the guests along with our photography guide (Robert Postma) in September. It was great to have him along. We didn’t know what we were doing at all. We borrowed my brother’s camera for the trip. Robert was really helpful. We’re going to go to Iceland together.”
“We thought the food was awesome too,” said Mark. “It seemed like it was all fresh and homemade.”
“We had low expectations given how remote the lodge was,” added Stephanie. “We did not expect that they were going to have wine for us to drink, or elaborate several course meals. It was amazing.”
Both Mark and Stephanie raved about Churchill Wild’s hot breakfast cereal, a staple in the north that provides all-day energy.
“The oatmeal was amazing,” said Mark. “All you have here is the mushy Quaker oats or stiff-cut oats. There it was like oats and those little dark berries or dark grains.”
“We still talk about it,” said Stephanie. “It was pretty special for oatmeal. They said it would give us energy and keep us full until lunch. They were right.”
Was the Great Ice Bear Adventure a good idea, with regards to a honeymoon?
“We would really recommend it,” said Stephanie. “We had such great time. You’ve got this amazing thing that you get to see every day. You get to see the polar bears and then you come back and you have something to talk about every evening. The photographs we took were just phenomenal. We actually had a harder time putting all those together, photo books and albums, than we did with our wedding photos.
“The staff took really good care of us. They made it special. One night we went out to see the northern lights, they were visible and the sun hadn’t even gone down yet, so we grabbed our cameras. And when we came back there was a candle lit in our room. I said to Mark, ‘You’re not supposed to have candles in here! Did you bring matches? I don’t remember packing anything like that.’
“We looked closer and the staff had lit a candle for us and left two polar bears, one in a wedding dress and one in a tuxedo. It was so cute. And they left of us a bottle of champagne in a bucket with ice. ”
“It was a total surprise,” added Mark. We’ll definitely remember this trip.”
“Yes,” said Stephanie. “They treated us like family when we were there. We could not have asked for a better experience. The manager, Nolan Booth sat down with us many times over meals. He was a great guy and had a lot of fun stories.
“We love playing in the cold. We love the idea of being out and about every day. And the nice thing about Churchill Wild is that we kind of got a mix of different features on the trip. We got the walking tour where we were able to go out every day and see the land and the animals. And then I think we had one day where went out on the buggies. So we got to cover a lot more ground than we would have been able to on foot. We liked the mix that they offered us, but we would not trade that walking tour for anything.”
“And we had a dog sledding day,” said Mark. “They really worked to make it special for us. It was a great time. We definitely recommend it. And Winnipeg was awesome too. We walked around the whole city on the weekend.”
The couple is already planning a return trip for an anniversary celebration.
“Everything was absolutely amazing,” said Mark. “It exceeded our expectations.”
“We haven’t decided what month, or winter or summer, but we’re definitely going back,” said Stephanie. “We can’t do it only once. We’re thinking of trying a different Churchill Wild lodge next time, just so we can learn more about the area. Maybe the trip that has swimming with beluga whales as a component (Birds, Bears and Belugas at Seal River Heritage Lodge).”
“There’s no way we could pass that up,” said Mark.
“We’d be the first ones in the water.”