Running With the Bears in Churchill

By Albert Martens

MANITOBA

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

I feel very fortunate to have been able to organize a great marathon in the subarctic again. During the many months of planning, we hoped 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 matching runners with crew and safety vehicles. Every runner needs 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 behaviour. We expected polar bears to be present this year since the Hudson’s Bay was not yet frozen.

It was a beautiful start in front of the Seaport Hotel, with “O Canada” playing, a prayer and the bear banger gun shot at 8 a.m. 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 at their backs—until the turnaround point at kilometre 21.1.

Running back toward the town of Churchill was a big challenge for the runners. A strong cold wind was blowing, 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-kilometre mark a mama with two sweet cubs was watching runners from a short distance. Now it was more important than ever for the runner to stay close to their crew/vehicle.

Then the Ranger escort spotted a big bear approaching right on the road. It was about 25 metres from two runners who stopped, thinking, “Where do we go?” The Ranger shot his gun, but the bear kept coming. Even the experienced Ranger became a bit concerned.  But finally, the bear steered off the road and left.  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. It’s possible these encounters influenced the runners’ pace a bit.

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

The running route (out and back) is a beautiful road, with a good section 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 impressive. These are views the runners will not forget soon.

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.

Albert and Edna Martens (Steinbach EMC) serve in Manitoba with Athletes in Action.

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