Ex­otic Des­ti­na­tion

Auck­land, New Zealand

Canadian Running - - FEATURES - By Dave Col­ley

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

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