The 10th Polar Bear Marathon 2021

The 10th anniversary Polar Bear Marathon took place in Churchill on November 20th, 2021.

I feel very fortunate to have been able to organize a great marathon in the subarctic again. During the many months of planning for the run, it was always with the hope that it would not be cancelled at last minute due to Covid-19. Fourteen runners plus crew people were able to travel to Churchill for the run.

Participants came from Ottawa, British Columbia, Churchill, Winnipeg, Steinbach, Italy, and Lithuania.

The night before the run we had a short planning meeting in the Seaport restaurant matching up runners with crew and safety vehicles. It is important that every runner has their own crew since no two runners have the same pace. The Canadian Rangers were part of the crew that helped us. They are a big asset because they live in Churchill and understand bear behavior. We did expect polar bears to be present this year since the Hudson’s Bay was not frozen. If the Bay is frozen the bears are mostly gone, but now they were still hanging around town.

It was a beautiful start in front of the Seaport Hotel, with OH CANADA piped through the Bluetooth speakers, a prayer and the bear banger gun shot at 8.00 am. The runners were off, heading out of the Town of Churchill. It was snowing nicely with mild temperatures of minus 6°C, and they had the wind on their backs… until the turnaround point at kilometer 21.1.

Running back toward the town of Churchill was a big challenge for the runners. They were facing a strong cold wind, and the snowfall increased in intensity. Forecast was for a blizzard the following day. Not only were they facing into strong winds, suddenly the bears showed up along the route. Around the 15 kilometer mark a Mama with two sweet cubs was watching runners from about 75 – 100 meters away. Now it was more important than ever for the runner to stay close to their crew/vehicle. One runner did not stay with his vehicle, and I got nervous about his safety. The front runner was doing fine, and the next two runners were paired up. The Ranger escort spotted a big bear approaching right on the road. It was about 25 meters from the truck and the two runners stopped, thinking, “Where do we go?” One runner told us later he had thought of going into the back of the truck box but then decided that would just mean a nice menu on a dinner plate for the bear. The Ranger shot his gun, but the Papa bear kept coming. Even the experienced Ranger became a bit concerned. But finally, the bear steered off the road and left. I guess he didn’t like the menu. A bit further down the road, the same runners had to stop on the road and wait for the Mama bear with her two cubs to cross of the road. I am thinking these encounters may have influenced the runners pace a bit.

Every runner got to see a bear or two from about 100 meters. The ‘Polar Bear Marathon’ lived up to its name.

The running route (out and back) is a beautiful road, curving back and forth, up and down a bit, a good section of it going right along the Hudson’s Bay, witnessing the crashing waves hitting the shoreline. Running in the falling snow and seeing the one-sided “Charlie Brown” pine trees is very impressive. These are views that runners will not forget soon.

Coming to the finish was exciting. Some of the runners were totally done, exhausted to the point of falling flat on the icy cold road. A mascot Polar Bear greeted each one and a photo was taken at the Seaport Hotel with their Country flag in the background, usually together with their escort vehicle driver.

Some runners finished the Half marathon at km 21.1 and others finished the full 42.2 km marathon distance, and one completed the ultra of 50 kilometers.

The awards dinner in the Seaport was much appreciated by the runners, after having had a brief rest and a warm bath or shower. The evening is special where each runner is asked to come and share his or her experience. Live entertainment was provided by Roy Mexted. He writes and sings folksongs about Churchill. I have the honor of presenting each runner with a medal, certificate and a swag bag which includes a t-shirt, a book, pen, toque and a Buff and a special soapstone Polar Bear carving done by a Dene Indigenous artist from Tadoule Lake.

The following morning, we woke up to the promised blizzard. Nine of our group were scheduled to fly out on that Sunday evening. The pilot of the Charter flight managed to get to the airport to check out the runway and get permission to take off early. The group flew out right into the teeth of the blizzard and landed safely in Winnipeg where calm weather prevailed. The rest of our group (7) stayed another night and because the Hotel restaurant was closed, the mayor of the town brought us Pizza. We had no place to go and eat. One of the Canadian Rangers came into the Inn and entertained our group with a great slide show of his adventures in the Arctic.

Athletes in Action
Albert Martens
December 2021

View pictures from the event here.