RACE SPOTLIGHT: Running Wild – The Polar Bear Marathon in Churchill

Polar Bear Seal River Lodge

 Photos and story by Birgit-Cathrin Duval

Minus 41C wind chill (-41.8F) and a polar bear alert.

Most ultrarunners worry about hitting the wall. If you’re running the Polar Bear Marathon you will face an even bigger fear: running into a polar bear.

So how’s that for a challenge? Running in cold arctic air with wind chill factor up to minus 40 Celsius through pristine polar bear country?

Churchill is a tiny town located at the edge of the arctic in northern Manitoba, Canada. It’s a truly Arctic community and it’s only accessible by air (approx. two hours from Winnipeg) or by train, which takes about 36 hours—often more.

Every year in October and November hundreds of polar bears begin their move from their summer habitat to the Hudson Bay where they eagerly wait for the ice to form. Once the bay freezes the polar bear will have a feast and go hunting for ring seals.

It’s the time of the year when Churchill gets busy. All hotels and B&B are booked and tourists from all over the world come to Churchill to see the polar bears.

You can book a day tour on a tundra buggy or stay at a remote lodge outside town or book a couple of days in the Tundra Buggy Lodge which is located in the midst of the tundra with nothing but polar bears around.

On November 22, 2014 you can run with the polar bears. There will be an Ultra Marathon (50 km), a Marathon (42,195 km) a half Marathon (21 km).

The course is set amid rugged wilderness along the flat icy coast of Hudson Bay. Local volunteers will drive beside the runners, carrying food, water, extra clothing, and of course, guns.

The first Polar Bear Marathon took place in November 2012. I was coming back from Seal River Lodge where I was on assignment writing and photographing a story on polar bears. I decided to stay a few extra days in town to document the first Polar Bear Marathon in history.

In the early morning on November 20, 2012, 14 runners from Canada, USA and Germany gathered in front of Gypsies, the local coffee place. A shot from a bear gun was the signal for the start and off they went.

One of the runners from the US, Mike Pierce of San Diego who calls himself “Antarctic Mike” after running a marathon in Antarctica, has a unique way of preparing for the run: he trains in a commercial freezer.

Eric Alexander of Vail, Colorado is an experienced mountaineer who escorted the first blind mountain climber to the summit of Mount Everest. It was Eric’s first attempt at a full marathon.

Albert Martens, 67, of Steinbach, Manitoba is the organizer of the Polar Bear Marathon. He is a veteran of 50 marathons and more than 10 ultramarathons, including the 217 km Badwater Ultra in Death Valley, California, which is known as one of the toughest footraces on earth.

Martens, who crossed the finish line in just over six hours in his first Polar Bear Marathon adventure, says that bear attacks don’t worry him. “We rely on the locals to keep an eye out for us,” he says.

Though the first Polar Bear Marathon started in mild conditions, the Arctic soon bared its teeth, bringing snow, strong winds and numbing cold

Late in the afternoon, Eric Alexander and Gary Koop of Steinbach became the first to cross the finish line. Neither of them had encountered a polar bear, but they were out there. We had several reports of locals that encountered polar bears on the road. In fact, one bear threatened the race. An armed volunteer scared it off by firing a noisy “cracker” shell. When the bear heard the explosion, it ran.

But it’s not all about adventure and polar bears. Albert Martens’ intent is to use running to connect with others and to raise support for charity. With the Polar Bear run the runners will be supporting the Native (First Nations people of Canada’s North) ministry of Athletes in Action (AIA) Baseball camps. To find out more about their work go to Albert Martens’ website at www.albertmartens.com.

Last year’s marathon was won by Sven Henkes of Germany. The race took place in minus 20 C and a wind chill factor of minus 41 C. All runners received a soapstone carving from a local First Nations artist.

Here’s a video about the Polar Bear Marathon.

Direct YouTube Link HERE

For more information about the Polar Bear Marathon contact Albert Martens, www.albertmartens.com

For more information on Churchill: www.everythingchurchill.com

For more information on Manitoba: http://www.travelmanitoba.com

Birgit-Cathrin Duval is a freelance journalist and photographer from the Black Forest in Germany. Having travelled to all the provinces and territories in Canada, which still draw her continuously back she has fallen in love with the arctic and the polar bears. Her work is published in a variety of newspapers and magazines in Germany and Switzerland.

Self Portrait 2.06.2010In 2013, her story on the polar bears at Seal River Lodge in Churchill has won the GoMedia award for best international print and online story, in 2014 she won the GoMedia Keep Exploring Award of Excellence for her outstanding work of travel stories on Canada. When she is not travelling in Canada, you will find Birgit exploring the trails and mountains of her native Black Forest. She works for newspapers and tourism organisations always on the search for new stories to be told. Presently she is working on a book about the Black Forest.

Birgit-Cathrin’s website: www.takkiwrites.com

Twitter: @takkiwrites

Facebook: Birgit-Cathrin Duval / Birgit-Cathrin Duval Photography

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