Auckland, New Zealand
When I first read about the Polar Bear Marathon, it was described as one of the coldest on earth. Who wouldn’t at least be curious about such a claim?
The race is limited to 30 participants who, in the past, have come from all over the world – U.K., Germany, Morocco, Mexico (the famous Tarahumara runners), Switzerland, U.S., and Canada with some from Churchill itself. Participants need to get themselves to Winnipeg and the Race Director organizes everything beyond there: the chartered round-trip f light to Churchill and accommodation for three nights in the community. Registration also includes a tour of the area and the possibility of seeing migrating polar bears.
Founder Albert Martens, an avid Manitoba-based ultrarunner, wanted to start a Canadian marathon somewhere cold…really cold. Churchill seemed like a great choice. The run has become a nonprofit fundraiser for sports activities in very isolated indigenous communities. In the summer Albert and volunteers travel north of Churchill to Tadoule Lake to provide free sports programs for young people. There are few recreational activities or facilities in a community with a population of approximately 300. Some of the indigenous Dene youth that live in the area have been sponsored in the marathon, and returned home to show their community the positive aspects of running – including winning!
The race is held during the last week of November, in part, to lessen the possibility of unintentional interactions between humans and polar bears, travelling to their annual seal hunt on the ice f loes of Hudson Bay.
The people of Churchill go all out to provide encouragement for the participants. In 2018 Canadian Rangers, a mostly Innu and Dene northern branch of the Canadian Armed Forces, offered to set up a support station every 5 km along the race route. Runners require a support vehicle, driven by a local volunteer, which carries their race food and drink. Attempting to pack water in this race’s harsh conditions is like running a marathon with your own personal
block of ice. The vehicle also provides a refuge in case a polar bear is looking for a fast food meal. Although they spend a large part of their lives on sea ice, polar bears are the largest land-based carnivores on earth and can sprint at up to 40 km/hr. The local conservation officer patrols the marathon route ahead of the race and uses noisy bear bangers to scare off any bears that might be travelling along it. Each escort vehicle must carry a rif le for runner protection. One year the lead runner had to wait until a polar bear was persuaded to find a new route. This explains why Martens says the goal in this run is not to aspire to a personal best, but rather to achieve a natural high from finishing it. Runners can expect temperatures to be around -20 C to -25 C with winds of 25 km/h. Naturally, this can vary a lot depending on the year, but snow and high winds will not deter the hardy! Winter running apparel is a must: A balaclava, toque and lots of layering for the legs and torso are needed to avoid the dist inct possibilit y of hypothermia and frostbite .
If you usually race with 2,000 to 20,000 runners but seek a more intimate and challenging race experience (and can find your way to Churchill), this unique marathon might be the experience of a lifet ime. Just don’t be surprised when friends and loved ones think you’re nuts.
Note: No bears or runners have been harmed over seven Polar Bear Marathons to date.
ABOVE Juana Ramirez of the Tarahumara keeping warm and motivated on course
BOTTOM RIGHT 5 time winner of the Marathon Des Sables Mohamad Ahansal on course
BOTTOM LEFT Santiago Ramirez of the Tarahumara, winner of the 50K ultra